Few takers show up at toll hearing

Sen. Thomas McGee said the state’s tolling system is inequitable. Item File Photo

By Thomas Grillo

LYNN — The auditorium at North Shore Community College was mostly empty on Wednesday night when state officials briefed a handful of residents on how electronic tolling will impact North Shore commuters and more importantly, their wallet.

The good news for drivers is that with travel over the Tobin Bridge or through the Sumner/Callahan and Ted Williams tunnels, tolls will not rise when the state ends toll booth collection and goes electronic on Friday, Oct. 28.

The proposed changes that will replace toll booths with so-called overhead gantries will keep the Sumner/Callahan and Ted William Tunnel tolls at $3.50 for Pay by Plate and out of state E-ZPass customers and $3 for Massachusetts E-Z Pass customers. To use the Tobin Bridge, all EZ Pass users will still pay $2.50 and Pay by Plate customers $3.

The only change that will impact North Shore commuters is that these routes will be tolled in both directions, with the toll split ½ and ½ so customers pay the same roundtrip amount as today if they use the Massachusetts EZPass.

Under the proposal, passenger vehicles with a Massachusetts EZ Pass driving from Boston to the New York border on the Turnpike will pay 45 cents less than they do today.

As soon as the system goes online, demolition work will begin on the toll plazas.

“The three guiding principles of this project is to increase air quality, decrease congestion and increase public safety,” Thomas Tinlin, the state’s highway administrator, told the sparse gathering. “Everything else we do is with that in mind.”

The public hearing was the second in a series of seven that are being held by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). The  agency’s board of directors is expected to vote on the final price structure in early October.

One of the few speakers, Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), said he did not object to the change over to electronic tolling. Instead, he said the state’s toll system is inequitable.

“I am not standing up here to oppose tolls, I am standing up here to say we need to find a fair way to address the transportation deficit we have in the commonwealth,” he said.

He called upon the Baker administration to consider expanding tolls to other areas of the state including routes 93, 95 and 128.

“We are boxed in on the North Shore, we don’t have transportation investment here and we continue to be asked to pay for tolling to cover other areas,” McGee said. “It’s not fair. If we put up tolling in other areas of the commonwealth, we can do it in a way that’s fair for everyone.”

State Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn) said while he is pleased rates will not rise for North Shore commuters, it’s still more than residents in Billerica, Andover, Whitman and Taunton pay.

“I don’t see this as a revenue issue, it’s a reform issue,” he said. “We have to expand our electronic tolling. Massachusetts is always a leader … and we need to be a leader in transportation.”

Jim Smith of Swampscott said while some Bay State residents get a free ride without tolls, Lynn does not.

“We subsidize everyone else,” he said.

Cindy Regnier of Lynn, who said she does not have a transponder, objects to higher rates charged to commuters who do not have an E-ZPass.

“The whole thing feels like it’s jammed down people’s throats without an option,” she said. “We are being penalized if we don’t buy into the E-ZPass transponder thing.”

The transponders, which are free, will also be used as part of the new gantry system.

Talk about going to electronic tolling was introduced in 2010. Following a feasibility study, the decision was made to convert to an electronic tolling system. The Tobin Bridge was converted to electronic tolling two years ago. MassDOT awarded a $130 million contract in 2014 to Raytheon for the construction of gantries and 10 years of system maintenance. That same year, the board also awarded a 10-year, $201 million contract to TransCore for the back office and the operation of seven customer service centers.

More than 500 toll taker jobs were eliminated to make way for electronic tolls. But Tinlin said MassDOT is committed to training these workers to take new jobs at the agency or elsewhere.

On the issue of privacy, Tinlin said the state is only capturing data on cars to collect tolls.

Of the 21 people who attended the hearing, four were local residents, two were legislators, two were State Police officers and the rest were MassDOT staffers.

“If we were talking about increasing tolls for this region we would have a much larger crowd,” Tinlin said. “For the people in Lynn, their cost of doing business is not changing.”

Thomas Grillo can be reached at [email protected]

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