EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 12, 2012

Editorial: Open-road tolling can reduce highway back-ups

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — The toll taker booths at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority have long been considered a haven for political patronage jobs, and so it is good to see that Gov. Deval Patrick is taking a stab at making the tolls more efficient for the people who should matter most — the driving public.

What makes the governor’s proposal even more relevant to the average motorist is his efforts to advance Massachusetts up to the latest technology in tolls, the so-called “open-road tolling” system. It’s a system that works well, as the Interstate 95 tolls in Hampton, N.H., have amply illustrated.

In Hampton, there are now two high-speed lanes in each direction that motorists with EZPass technology can use. Their toll is “collected” by electronic equipment as they speed through at 65 mph. There are also some traditional tollbooths open for those who don’t have the passes. The net impact is a vast improvement over what used to be the norm at the Hampton tolls. No longer do we see the nine-mile backups on holiday weekends. Cars move through at a rapid pace, and even on weekends when volume is very high, the wait times and congestion are no longer intolerable.

Patrick plans to introduce open-road tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike, which is the most notorious toll bottleneck in the state. We’ve all heard the horror stories of 10-mile and even 20-mile backups on holiday weekends, all caused by the inefficient tolling system. Open tolling is a good solution to this problem.

Our biggest concern is what steps the Legislature will take to ensure that patronage jobs are protected, at taxpayers’ expense of course. There are too many cousins, uncles, and coat-holders on the payroll for anyone to be deluded into thinking that these antiquated jobs will just wash away. Though many toll takers’ income is in the $45,000 to $55,000 range plus all the usual perks such as pensions and generous benefits, some earn over $100,000 a year. These are jobs that will be fought for.

The upgraded system is expected to cost about $100 million, and will eliminate 320 toll taker jobs. It is expected to pay for itself in three years. Details will be revealed next month, and presented to the state Legislature.

If there is a piece of the governor’s plan that we don’t like, it is the fact that once again the door has been left open to install tolls on major highways such as I-93 and at the state borders. Imagine the gridlock we would encounter here or with tollbooths on I-95 in or near Salisbury, plus the Hampton tolls, plus the other tolls on I-95 in Maine and Route 16 in New Hampshire. What a step backward that would be.

Using technology to reduce toll booth back-ups is fine, but vigilance is required. The technology for open-road tolling can be used to support all kinds of tax-raising schemes, such as congestion pricing and replacing the gas tax with a miles-driven tax.

In a better world, highway tolls would be banned. They create congestion, delay, air pollution, and too often put a black splotch on a holiday weekend getaway. They are a holdover from man’s ancient past when kingdoms and empires did not have sophisticated tools to collect taxes. We have those tools today, but tolls continue to linger on, long after those kingdoms and empires have crumbled to dust.

We hope for that better world, but in the real world we’ll accept a more efficient way to collect tolls.