BOSTON — The state is owed more than $1.2 million in unpaid tolls on the Tobin Bridge — with motorists racking up millions of dollars in late fees and other charges — in the first six months of a new cashless tolling system that will eventually replace toll booths across Massachusetts.
Figures from the state Department of Transportation reveal that from mid-July to Dec. 31 the state collected less than half of the $2.7 million in pay-by-plate tolls billed to motorists crossing the Tobin during that time.
Meanwhile, motorists who didn’t pay up after getting bills in the mail have been hit with more than $3.2 million in late fees and other charges, with MassDOT collecting only $600,000 of that by the end of the year.
Paul Merulo, a financial services manager from Everett, said he has accumulated more than $5,000 in late fees and other charges from unpaid tolls he was charged traveling over the Tobin in the past few months. He said the charges are “excessive.”
“It’s like gangster extortion,” he said. “I’ve got to fight this, because there’s no way I can afford to pay it.”
The pay-by-plate system, designed in part by Raytheon, photographs license plates from an overhead camera as vehicles pass through the gates and sends monthly bills to drivers who don’t have E-ZPass transponders.
Motorists who use E-ZPass pay a discounted rate of $2.50; those with no transponder pay the full $3 toll.
MassDOT officials are testing the gadgets on the Tobin as part of a pilot project that got underway in early-July. By summer 2016, the cashless electronic toll system and E-ZPass will replace every toll booth in the state.
Fees for nonpayment can run up to $90 for every unpaid toll, which can quickly become a hefty outstanding bill.
“These fees are exorbitant,” said Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. “It comes as a shock to many people when they get a $6,400 bill for a handful of $3 tolls. MassDOT really needs to scale down the fees and penalties, because many people can’t afford it.”
Connaughton said MassDOT has been negotiating settlements with some motorists who’ve racked up late fees and offering them reduced charges in exchange for purchasing an E-ZPass transponder and account.
Expanding the number of E-ZPass customers — which account for about 76 percent of the motorists who pass over the Tobin Bridge — was one of MassDOT’s stated goals in switching over to the cashless tolling system.
“Many people don’t want or can’t afford E-ZPass,” she said. “So there’s always going to be a portion of the population that won’t get a transponder who are going to get caught in the shuffle with these huge bills.”
MassDOT couldn’t immediately provide figures from the past three months and wouldn’t comment for this story.
Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment about MassDOT’s fee system, which was approved by lawmakers.
Overall, the tolling system makes big bucks for the state. Last year, MassDOT took in more than $325 million from tolls on the Tobin Bridge, two harbor tunnels and dozens of tolls located along the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Combined, the state registers more than 574,000 tolls on an average weekday.
MassDOT expects to save $45 million a year in operating expenses going cashless, in part by eliminating the jobs of more than 400 toll workers who make an average of $30 an hour. That adds up to nearly $50 million a year in wages and benefits, according to the state agency.
Switching to cashless tolling also means the state won’t have to rebuild its dilapidated toll booths, many of which date back to the late-1950s.
MassDOT officials also say doing away with toll booths will mean better traffic flow near the bridges and tunnels, which are usually backed up.
Another potential revenue stream from switching to cashless tolling are out-of-state motorists without E-ZPass, who accounted for a big chunk of the $5.2 million in unpaid tolls owed to the state in the previous year.
Massachusetts has agreements with New Hampshire and Maine to share motor registry files with the names and addresses of owners whose license plates have been photographed because they didn’t pay a toll. People in those states can be barred from renewing their licenses and registrations because of outstanding toll fines.
MassDOT is negotiating similar pacts with Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and other states, but so far hasn’t reached agreements.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at email@example.com.