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Turnpike users may get a free toll device

Citizens Bank deal would also put ads at booths

Massachusetts Turnpike drivers may be able to get Fast Lane transponders for free for a limited time, under a deal with Citizens Bank approved by the Turnpike Authority's board yesterday.

Citizens Bank is taking over sponsorship of the Fast Lane automated toll collection program from Fleet. In exchange for the prominent display of the bank's name on some 700 Fast Lane signs on the turnpike, which nearly a quarter of a million motorists drive each day, Citizens will pay the turnpike authority $1.2 million over three years.

Some of that money will go for a highway beautification program, including wildflower plantings and new planters at all toll plazas.

Citizens Bank officials say they have discussed the idea of giving away Fast Lane transponders in special one-day promotions in which the devices would be available at toll plazas or bank branches. While not part of the sponsorship contract, such a promotion is being encouraged by turnpike officials, as they try to shift more drivers to Fast Lane. Some 700,000 motorists use transponders, and Mass. Pike officials expect about 100,000 more to sign up over the next year. Some drivers have objected to the $27.50 cost for the devices, which trigger a sensor every time the car passes through a specially equipped toll plaza, recording a payment due.

"We would consider giving them away for free, through special events and programs," said Theresa McLaughlin, director of marketing for Citizens Financial Group. "We brainstormed about how to get more transponders out there, and that was one of the ideas. Citizens is all about creating good will. We do things to get people talking and thinking about our brand."

McLaughlin stressed that there are no definitive plans for a transponder giveaway. She could not address specifics such as whether drivers renewing their transponders -- as some motorists are doing this year, because the devices have a five-year lifespan -- would get free ones in their second round of participation in the program. A final decision on the giveaway is expected in the next several weeks. The Citizens Bank Fast Lane signs will be up by early next year.

One important factor is the cost. In any giveaway, Citizens Bank would absorb the $27.50-per-transponder cost. If Citizens gave away tens of thousands of the devices, it could cost millions.

Sean O'Neill, spokesman for Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello, said that the turnpike charges customers only for the cost of the transponders, plus shipping and administrative costs. In New York and New Jersey, the transponders are free, but drivers are charged fees in those states that are not charged in Massachusetts, O'Neill said.

Citizens would undertake the transponder giveaway on its own, authority officials and board members said. The authority has no leverage to force it to make the devices free, the officials said.

The turnpike has been trying to make the transponders more available, at the eastbound Natick service plaza, for example, and online at www.mtafastlane.com. Citizens Bank also intends to make the transponders easily available, possibly by stocking them at bank branches, said McLaughlin.

Another feature of Citizens taking over for Fleet, she said, will be clearer signs, which will make it easy for drivers to see where the Fast Lane is and where to go to pay a toll in cash. Those are the only two options now on the turnpike; the authority eliminated automated coin baskets earlier this year.

One design for the new signs for the busy Route 128 and Allston-Brighton toll plazas calls for a "marquee" straddling the top of three toll-taking stations, with the Citizens Bank name stretched across the top and driver information below, all on the bank's trademark light-green backdrop.

"If I had my druthers, we wouldn't do this," said Turnpike Authority board member Jordan Levy, pointing out how advertisements are plastered on benches, bus stops, and the like. "I just don't think that's government's role."

Amorello said that the sponsorship "will be done tastefully." He said he favored the Fast Lane sponsorship -- the original deal with BankBoston, later Fleet, was for $1.5 million over three years -- but not selling naming rights for tunnels or bridges.

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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