By Seth Daniel
A top state transportation official apologized to drivers this week after a Boston media outlet reported that tolling in both directions on the Mystic/Tobin Bridge is set to roll out this year – a plan that has been reported in the Patriot Bridge since 2013.
Tom Tinlin of the state Department of Transportation (DOT) told the i-Team in Boston on Tuesday that several meetings were held three years ago, but a reminder should have gone out earlier before the state began installing equipment – which was done on northbound Tobin lanes last Friday – and preparing for tolling in the northbound direction.
“At the end of the day, we have to be more in tune with our customers, the people that we serve,” Tinlin told the i Team. “Surprises are never a good thing.”
Two-way tolling was in place many years ago on the Tobin Bridge, but was discontinued in favor of charging only those coming into Charlestown from Chelsea one larger fee. The two-way plan made a comeback three years ago when the state Department of Transportation (DOT) began an All Electronic Tolling (AET) program. That program went into place more than a year ago in the southbound Tobin lanes.
The new program would split the difference on tolls, meaning drivers would pay $1.25 either way at the regular price. The discount program for Charlestown and Chelsea residents, however, would remain in place and also be split in half, the DOT previously reported.
The plan for two-way tolling was reported almost three years ago in the Patriot Bridge and its sister paper, the Chelsea Record, when a state environmental filing revealed the plans deep within a 52-page document. At the time, the plan included the Harbor tunnels in Eastie as well, but those have been pulled from the AET program until a later date.
“Starting with public meetings in 2013, MassDOT officials have stated that the Tobin Bridge would have a toll in one direction only as long as cash payments were being taken but then would return to having tolls in each direction after All Electronic Tolling is activated state-wide,” said Jacquelyn Goddard, spokesperson for the DOT. “As stated publicly, the tolls will be revenue-neutral, so a driver crossing on the Tobin and paying $2.50 now to travel southbound and traveling for free northbound, will, after electronic tolling goes ‘live,’ pay $1.25 to travel southbound and $1.25 to travel northbound. Several days ago, gantry infrastructure was installed by MassDOT on the Tobin Bridge over northbound lanes but northbound tolls are not scheduled to be ‘live’ until the end of the year, at such time as All Electronic Tolling is scheduled to go ‘live’ state-wide.”
The DOT anticipates testing the software on the new equipment installed in the northbound lanes this summer, even if they don’t officially start charging until later in the year.
State Rep. Dan Ryan, who represents both Chelsea and Charlestown, said he is actually in favor of two-way tolling as a way to make traffic jams in his district more predictable. He actually called for the idea in a letter to Environmental Secretary Matthew Beaton last summer regarding the Wynn Boston Harbor casino permit.
“I don’t think two-way should come as a big surprise,” he said. “New technology has allowed us to go back to a more fair and equitable collection system for the communities surrounding the Tobin. I would like some data in the first six months to see if the change affected driver behavior. I mentioned two-way tolling in last year’s letter to Secretary Beaton regarding the Wynn casino. The way I look at it, Chelsea and Charlestown are as impacted by traffic on Route 99 as well as on Route 1. My hope is that consistent tolling at least makes the traffic predictable.”