BOSTON (AP) Transportation Secretary James Aloisi announced Jan. 21 that he was eliminating the up-front cost for new Fast Lane transponders but instituting a monthly service charge on all users of the electronic devices that allow them to pay Massachusetts Turnpike tolls without stopping at a booth.
Aloisi said effective Feb. 15, those signing up for the Fast Lane program or replacing existing transponders will no longer have to pay a $29.95 product fee. Those signing up for the program in the prior 30 days also will be refunded the cost of their transponders.
At the same time, everyone using the transponders will be levied a $6 annual service charge — per device — beginning in June. The charge will apply even to those who previously bought their transponders.
The switch could prove to be a revenue boon for the cash-strapped Turnpike. Only about 1,300 people are signing up for the Fast Lane program each month, while there are already 1 million Fast Lane users.
They will have to pay $6 million in annual service fees, while, at current levels, the Turnpike will be forgoing only $468,000 each year in transponder charges.
Aloisi, a former Turnpike consultant, cast the change as customer-friendly.
“We are taking reform and customer service for Turnpike users to a new level,’’ he said in a statement. “This move sends a clear message that the Patrick administration is serious about efficiency in delivering transportation services and, in this case, serious about moving away from the days of the manned toll booth.’’
Alan LeBovidge, the Turnpike’s executive director, added: “Fast Lane use is good for the consumer and good for the environment, with fewer engines idling and burning fuel in long lines at toll booths.’’
LeBovidge announced recently he had begun the process of laying off 20 toll-takers, the first step toward his goal of cutting 100 toll-taker jobs he estimates will save $10 million annually.
The announcement came a day before the Turnpike’s board of directors met to discuss a proposed doubling of tolls to help it cope with $2.2 billion in debt associated with construction of Boston’s Central Artery project.
The proposal triggered howls of protests at four recent public hearings, prompting Pike officials to convert a planned final vote on the hike into a general discussion of the subject.
Aloisi, Gov. Deval Patrick, members of the Legislature and Turnpike officials have been working on a comprehensive solution to address an array of transportation issues, from crippling debts at the Pike and MBTA, to billions in road and bridge repairs, to changes in the agencies’ lucrative pension programs.
The announcement also came the same day the Turnpike released a report showing a decline in Massachusetts Turnpike business last year. Statistics show there were 6.7 million toll collections in 2008, a drop of 3.4 percent from 2007.
Nonetheless, the Turnpike Authority collected $22.3 million in tolls last year, an increase of 8.5 percent from a year earlier.
That was due to a toll hike instituted last January.
Turnpike spokesman Mac Daniel said the change is not aimed at increasing Turnpike traffic, but making it more efficient also while addressing a complaint of cash customers.
Of roughly 800 people who responded to a recent Pike survey for cash customers, 75 percent of them said the reason they continued to pay cash tolls was because of the upfront transponder cost.