When the last toll booths came down on the Massachusetts Turnpike, state officials heralded the event as the start of a new era.
Open-road tolling — the ability to keep driving at a steady highway speed without stopping to get a ticket or pay a toll — would save time and aggravation for drivers, and save gas because it avoided the stop-and-go driving.
The overhead cameras would record every vehicle that passed beneath them on the turnpike and various toll bridges and tunnels.
Thousands of Massachusetts motorists had been using electronic E-ZPass transponders for years, which was the first step toward full automation of toll collection. The E-ZPass is used in a network of 18 states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
When the state moved to raze the last toll booths and erect overhead cameras, a marketing campaign pushed drivers who hadn’t already started using a transponder to sign up and make their lives easier.
Finally, all toll collection would be automated. What could go wrong? A lot, apparently.
Unfortunately, the revenue collection piece of this project hasn’t lived up to expectations. WCVB’s 5 Investigates reported this week the state’s billing system that replaced those human toll collectors is letting tens of millions of dollars go uncollected.
Records obtained by WCVB show some $122 million is owed to the state, with some drivers in arrears three years or more.
State officials cited privacy concerns and wouldn’t release a list of names of the biggest scofflaws, but raw numbers reported by WCVB show the top offender owes $90,000, followed by another owing $50,000.
The open-road tolling system was supposed to record and photograph license plates of vehicles that passed under the gantry, but didn’t have transponders. A bill would automatically be mailed to that motorist and, presumably, payment made to the state.
One surprising thing about the WCVB report — other than the huge uncollected amount — is that most of the top 100 offenders live in Massachusetts and are not vacationers or people passing through on business.
Channel 5 interviewed Steve Collins, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s assistant highway administrator for tolls, to find out why the system isn’t working.
Collins said the state is receiving more money than it expected — even with an outstanding $122 million.
“No one can deny that that’s a lot of money and we obviously want to capture it whatever way we can,” he told WCVB.
Instead of having a system in place to capture all the revenue when open-road tolling became fully operational, Collins said the state only recently sought bids from debt collection companies to go after unpaid tolls.
WCVB said MassDOT had been talking about hiring debt collectors for two years, but Collins said the whole public bidding process delayed hiring anyone until now. Three debt collecting vendors were hired and started working earlier this month, the station reported.
The fact that most of the top offenders are from Massachusetts also means the state can prevent them from registering their vehicles until they pay, and can share information with neighboring states to stop violators from seeking to register cars and trucks there.
The upside of the open-road tolling story is that the system has made driving smoother, without the stops and starts the old toll booths required. It’s better for the environment and for drivers’ peace of mind.
But the failure to fully implement the system to capture the revenue that is due is a hole big enough to drive a truck through. We can only hope the new debt collectors can collect what is owed and close this loophole.