Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Bell tolls for Mass. toll-takers

It’s really difficult to imagine a job that’s more boring than being a toll collector. Not only is the job colossally boring, but you’re standing on your tootsies all day, so it’s probably really bad on your feet, legs, and back. Then there’s the repeated open-close of the window, which must be really fun when it’s 14 degrees out. Oh, and let’s not forget breathing in the exhaust fumes.

But. hey, it’s a job. And if you don’t have much of an education or skillset, it’s not a bad-paying one. In Massachusetts, some toll-takers made as much as $80K when OT was factored in. Plus, they get something that most private sector workers don’t: a pension.

Unfortunately, for the toll collectors of Massachusetts, the toll booths have gone phantom: as of last Friday, the turnpike is all electronic, all cash-less. There’s a new gantry system in place monitoring your car’s every move. If you have EZ-Pass – a transponder that, for the past decade or so, has let you avoid the toll-takers and zip through the fast lane – you’ll get charged as usual. (Fast Lane: that’s what the Massachusetts electronic toll-pay system used to be called, which was a lot more interesting than EZ-Pass. But, of course, it made sense to flip over to EZ-Pass, since they were the dominant player.)

If you don’t have a transponder, you’ll get a bill in the mail. Initially, this will cost the same as if you have EZ-Pass, but after a while, they’ll up the ante for the transponder-less.

“They” claim that managing tolls is all that those eye-spy gantries will be doing, but suspicious minds suspect that, soon enough, they’ll be sending out speeding tickets. Not to mention being used in divorce cases and criminal investigations. Which is fine, I guess. Anyway, if spies aren’t everywhere yet, they’re getting damned close.

But even if – Scout’s honor – all the system is going to be used for is toll collecting, surely this will be saving us tax payers some big bucks?

Well, as it turns out, our new electronic, cash-less system ain’t all that grand as a cost saving approach.

In the past, state officials said all-electronic tolling would save up to $50 million, but — adding in updated costs — officials now think it will save just $5 million in operating costs annually. (Source: Boston Globe)

So, the electronic gantries will cost almost as much as it does to pay 470 folks a decent wage. Okay. We all know that automation is inevitable. Why, one of these days, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Pink Slip had become automated… Still, it doesn’t seem like an especially good bargain.

Anyway, here’s the cost breakdown for the new system:

The state is on the hook for a $130 million contract to Raytheon to build and maintain the gantries; a $201 million contract to TransCore for billing services and staffing customer service centers; and up to$132.8 million for the demolition of the tollbooths.

I know we really can’t calculate ROI here, but just for the hell of it: at a cost of $500M, and a savings of $5M per year, with a zero interest rate, it will take 100 years to realize a return on this investment. Given that the system will be obsolete well before then…

Of course, the state is arguing that the new system will save time at the toll booths, especially at jam points like Route 128, or the Sturbridge exit on a holiday weekend, when everyone in the Northeast is apparently leaving New York for Boston, or heading from Boston to NY.

And with fewer cars idling, we’ll have less pollution.

But some have pointed out that all that making the pass-throughs faster and easier to pass through will just mean that there’ll be more of a back up at the real choke points. You can already zip through the Allston-Brighton tolls, then sit in traffic for a good long time negotiating your way onto Storrow Drive.

But back to the newly-unemployed toll collectors. As ghastly as I imagine the job to have been, it was a living. That toll booth was a place to get up and go to work in every day. You had your colleagues, even though, unless you were on a break, you were isolated from them: you were in your toll booth, they were in theirs. (Maybe they used hand signals.) I’m sure there were moments of excitement, when a famous person came through your booth, or a statie in hot pursuit blasted through. Or when someone tried to pay with pennies. And you had a steady paycheck.

When Fast Lane was first introduced, I still had a car, and I hopped right on it, and I wasn’t all that concerned about putting a toll collector out of work. I just wanted to not get stuck in a big line at a toll booth. So I guess I contributed to the demise of this latest buggy-whip position. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel bad for the toll collectors who aren’t yet ready to retire, and are now casting about for new work.

As more and more tasks are automated, more and more jobs will be phased out. Boring, mundane jobs. But work for someone. Just what is it that folks at the lower end of the education and skill continuum are going to do? Join the creative class? Decide at age 50 to get a STEM degree?

I know, I know, economies have a way of adjusting. But all this automation is going to be tough one to adjust to. As I’m sure the newly unemployed toll collectors of Massachusetts are finding out.

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