BOSTON — Traveling from one end of the Mass. Pike to the other will cost you roughly $14. But, as 25 Investigates found, some people are getting that ride for free.
We examined toll evasion data and how the state deals with violators and found thousands of drivers are cheating tolls each year but Massachusetts is doing little about it.
Ami Patel commutes 66 miles daily to and from her office in Newton and her home in Shrewsbury. Much of her time is spent on the Mass. Pike, which is a toll road.
“On a monthly basis, I think $55 goes out of my account because I have a pre-paid amount,” said the mother of two.
Patel added said that as long as the money is going to the upkeep and maintenance of the roads she uses, she doesn’t mind paying her fair share. But not everyone feels the same.
25 Investigates obtained photos from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation showing possible toll cheats in action.
In one photo, a rider can be seen using both hands to cover the license plate of a motorcycle as it passes through a toll gantry on the Pike.
Another photo shows a Lexus passing through with no front plate and some type of cover on the rear plate, and a picture of an 18-wheeler shows its two plates obstructed – one hidden from the overhead camera and the other covered with grease and partially illegible.
“It seems like whatever program is running in Massachusetts that’s run by the government, somebody’s trying to figure a way around it,” said Greg Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute in Boston and a former Massachusetts Inspector General.
Data provided to 25 Investigates through a public records request reveals 14,613 obstructed license plates have been recorded by MassDOT since November 2016, the first full month of cashless tolls in the Commonwealth.
“Somebody thinks they’re slick and this is an example. That’s not an insignificant amount,” said Sullivan, who reviewed the research and findings for this story. “People should realize that those tolls are really are being spent right back in the safety systems of the roadways in the Commonwealth.”
A quick Google search shows tricks to cheat tolls are divers and elaborate.
We found dozens of specialized license plate covers for sale that promise to block or distort toll cameras. We found out just how simple it is to obtain one and purchased it online for $20 and days later received it in the mail. Installing it was even simpler.
Massachusetts General Laws states "plates shall be kept clean with the numbers legible and shall not be obscured in any manner by the installation of any device obscuring said numbers.”
Bay State drivers caught with an obstructed license plate may face a $270 ticket. The state has issued 24,036 citations for obstructed license plates since November 2016. That’s about 20 citations per day.
25 Investigates asked MassDOT how it identifies and stops toll cheats. Our request for an on-camera interview was declined, but in an email, the agency said, “MassDOT looks for repetitive instances of the same vehicle at various toll gantries which allows for different views of the plate and/or vehicle. MassDOT tries to knit together pictures and/or look for specific details that can be used to identify violators such as a logo on the side of a truck. Massachusetts State Police are always aware of vehicles on the roads and look for instances in which license plates cannot be read.”
So how many repeated toll violators have been tracked down since 2016? Only four, according to MassDOT.
In some states, chronic toll cheats can face license and registration suspensions. In the summer of 2019, Pennsylvania announced it would begin clamping down on toll cheats by charging chronic offenders with felony theft. The Penn. Turnpike Commission will reportedly go after anyone who owes more than $500. It’s not yet clear how successful that program has been.
“I would love to not pay, but I don’t think I would put my energy and effort to cheating tolls,” said Ami Patel, the commuter from Shrewsbury mentioned at the top of this story. “People put their time and energy into doing that?”
MassDOT said drivers caught cheating tolls must reimburse the state.
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