Toll Changes for Tobin: Tunnels Proposed Quietly by State Dot

In a 53-page document filed quietly last week with environmental regulators and made public Tuesday, sweeping changes are detailed in the state’s highway tolling infrastructure and policies – including a program to charge tolls on the Tobin Bridge for northbound and southbound traffic.

The document – published in the insider-only ‘Environmental Monitor’ – details the new All-Electronic Tolling System (AETS) implementation project, a project addressed in some measure through meetings held in Chelsea and other municipalities earlier this summer. It’s a project Gov. Deval Patrick has pushed since day one, eliminating cash toll collection booths and going to an all-electronic system. It would be the largest toll road electronic conversion project in the nation to date, if approved.

While the document made public this week is concerned mostly with environmental aspects of the project, many key details in the tolling plan emerged concerning the Tobin Bridge and harbor tunnels (Ted Williams, Callahan, Sumner and I-90 Boston Extension).

One of the major changes for the Tobin and harbor tunnels includes adding tolling locations for northbound traffic. Currently, all northbound traffic out of Boston on the Bridge and tunnels pays no toll. Under the new plan, AETS gateways would be added for northbound and southbound traffic – meaning that a person going into Boston from Chelsea or other points north would be charged going in and coming out.

“The Tobin Bridge currently collects tolls in the southbound plaza on the Bridge,” read the filing. “This facility will be replaced initially with an AETS toll zone for southbound traffic in a Pilot Program. A northbound AETS toll zone will subsequently be implemented around the same time as (full) AETS implementation (systemwide).”

There was no word in the document about whether Chelsea’s host community discount would continue for the Bridge, which would be a key question for those living in Chelsea. That said, state transportation officials have certainly had their sights set on eliminating such discounts systemwide for the last several years. That, however, will be a conversation for a different day and likely something that local leaders will have to fight for.

The toll booths on the Tobin would be demolished under the plan, and new AETS gateways would be stretched over the southbound roadway after the Bridge and just before the exit splits (Rutherford Ave. or 93 South) in Charlestown.

Later, a northbound tolling gateway is proposed to stretch across the northbound roadway just prior to the entrance to the Bridge tunnel, also in Charlestown.

The southbound Tobin AETS gateway would actually end up being the Pilot Program for the new technology – being implemented next year as a test for the systemwide change that is proposed for 2015.

The system would work via the EZ Pass electronic collection method that many already use. Statistics in the filing showed that 68 percent of tolls at the Bridge and harbor tunnels in 2012 were collected via the EZ Pass. For those who do not or cannot convert to the EZ Pass system, photos of a person’s license plate will be taken at each toll gateway and an invoice will be sent on a monthly basis to the owner of that plate. The state has already worked out a system of enforcement with other states to collect unpaid tolls from out-of-state placeholders. Similarly, those in-state placeholders who do not pay the invoices would be subject to fines and Registry withholdings.

For those in Chelsea who use the Ted Williams Tunnel or the Callahan Tunnel, there would be a major change and with no possible savings via the host discount. The northbound Callahan Tunnel and the northbound side of the Ted Williams Tunnel also will begin charging a toll – a movement that is now free as tolls are only charged for those coming into Boston.

“The Metropolitan Highway System (MHS) Williams Tunnel currently collects tolls in two nearby westbound (inbound) plazas by Logan Airport,” read the filing. “These structures will be retained, but cash collection booths and equipment will be removed. Also, this tunnel will be converted from one-way to two-way tolling, with the addition of an AETS toll zone for eastbound traffic. Rates will be modified to reflect the change in tolls by collection in both directions.

“The MHS Sumner Tunnel currently collects tolls at a single southbound plaza in East Boston,” continued the filing. “This facility will be removed and replaced with AETS toll zones for both southbound (Sumner) as well as northbound traffic through the Callahan Tunnel.”

While the filing indicated modified rates for only the Williams Tunnel due to two-way tolling, it did not specify what kind of rate modification, and it mentioned no rate modifications for two-way tolling at the Tobin Bridge and Sumner/Callahan crossings.

All in all, 18 new gated toll locations would be added to the system to accompany the existing 24 locations.

While most of the locations are in Western and Central Massachusetts on the  Mass Pike and are designed to reduce traffic congestion and the “ticket” toll system, the moves on the Boston Pike Extension and the Bridge/Harbor Tunnels would be huge changes.

Many local and state officials had no idea of the dramatic changes detailed in the filing until told by the newspaper, and all deferred comment until they could find out more information on the extensive plan.

Key members in the Legislature, however, tended to think the DOT was taking the half-a-loaf approach – asking for the full loaf in hopes of getting a half-loaf or even just a slice of bread.

Such changes can be implemented without Legislative approval – requiring only that Commissioners approve it. However, such a change would cost millions and that kind of appropriation would need to be approved by the State Legislature.

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