Patrick: Mass may test new tolling within months

By Glen Johnson
AP Political Writer / March 3, 2010

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BOSTON—Massachusetts highway officials may begin testing a new form of electronic tolling within months, Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday.

Speaking during his monthly appearance on WTKK-FM, Patrick said the tests may be staged in lanes at the Massachusetts Turnpike exchange at Route 128 and on the Mystic Tobin Bridge connecting the city to the North Shore.

"I'd love to try to do something sooner rather than later," the governor said. Asked to narrow the timeframe, he said, "I hope it's months -- just a pilot" program.

With "open-road" tolling, automobiles would not have to stop at a toll booth but instead pass under a scanner that assesses a toll. The scanner could read transponders like those currently used by FastLane customers, but it also could read a license plate and send a bill or debit a driver's account.

Patrick broached the subject in response to a caller who complained about getting a $50 ticket for being unable to pay his Tobin Bridge toll -- despite offering a credit card or check when he realized he had no cash.

The governor said instituting open-road tolling would enhance customer convenience, both by eliminating toll booth lines and by alleviating the need to fumble for change. FastLane transponders are given out free. Still, some drivers refuse to get them even though they come with dedicated payment lanes and rarely have traffic lines.

Open-road tolling could be instituted across all lanes of a given road. That has sparked concern among some critics, who warn it could be a ploy to institute tolls on roads without them.

Commuters living west of Boston have long complained that some of their tolls are used to pay for the Big Dig tunnel project, which serves north-south commuters using Interstate 93. North and South shore lawmakers have warned against any effort to institute tolls on I-93.

Another potential flash point is at the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Some New Hampshire officials have talked about adding a toll booth in I-93 in Salem to help defray the cost of a 20-mile highway expansion. Patrick has suggested he may retaliate with his own booth, which would affect many Granite State residents who commute to Boston for work.

Patrick said he has already had one meeting with Raytheon officials to talk about their open-road tolling equipment. The FastLane program is run by another contractor.

On other subjects, the governor said:

--He supports Congress using "reconciliation," or a simple majority vote, to pass a national health insurance overhaul modeled on the Massachusetts universal care law.

"Let's do it," was all the Democrat said.

--He favors a driving bill that bans text-messaging while driving, requires the use of handsfree devices while using a cell phone (to his wife's chagrin, he said) at the wheel and requires at least some form of recurring road test for the elderly.

--He challenged Sen. Scott Brown's assertion that the federal stimulus bill has not created "a single job" in Massachusetts by recently hand-delivering a poster to him in Washington with the photos of 365 people who had gotten jobs during the program's first year.

--He hopes to soon establish a promised task force aimed at preserving a father's rights and role in the family amid parental disputes.

"You have a lot of folks out there who think this task force is a bad idea," he said. "What I want are people on it who actually are going to work on a solution and not just sit across a table and shout at each other."

--He does not think there is a need for additional panels to investigate the local and state police responses to the 1986 shooting by Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor accused of shooting and killing three colleagues. Massachusetts investigators concluded the 1986 shooting of Bishop's brother was accidental, but Norfolk District Attorney William Keating has now convened an inquest to determine if it may have been a murder.

Patrick says he wants to avoid "everybody doing to same thing at the same time."