Piecemeal toll hike

Gov. Deval Patrick says he wants to consolidate the state’s transportation agencies under one unified command, but he is preparing to pay for the services those agencies provide on a piecemeal basis.

Rather than push for an increase in the state gasoline tax, Patrick is cobbling together revenues from a hodge-podge of sources. The first major contribution is likely to come from Boston commuters from the west and north, who will face dramatically higher tolls under a proposal approved today by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board.

On a 4-1 vote, the board voted to raise $100 million a year by charging $2 at the Weston and Allston-Brighton tolls ($1.50 for Fast Lane users) and $7 at the Sumner and Ted Williams Tunnels ($6 for Fast Lane users). The tunnel charge for taxis is rising from $5.25 to $9. A final vote of the board will come later, but officials expect the increases to take effect in March or April. Officials said they expect the toll on the Tobin Bridge, which is run by the Massachusetts Port Authority, to rise to $7 as well.

Turnpike Authority board members and lawmakers representing communities north and west of Boston said they favored increasing the state gas tax instead of hiking tolls so that everyone who uses the state’s roads would help pay for the Turnpike. The state gas tax of 21 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1991. (See CommonWealth magazine article on gas tax.)

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But Bernard Cohen, Patrick’s transportation secretary, said at today’s meeting that there is no political consensus on new transportation revenues. "We are open to talking about new revenues," he said, but added that a toll increase now was unavoidable.

Patrick, in an op-ed yesterday in the Boston Globe, laid out his vision for a unified transportation system covering roads, bridges, tunnels, and mass transit and a restructuring of the debt left over from the Big Dig. He said the burden of that debt needs to be shared more equitably through a combination of "tolls, Massport revenues, registry fees, and savings from eliminating the Turnpike Authority."

Lawmakers representing communities from north and west of Boston said the toll increases on the Turnpike would hit their constituents hard and did not represent an equitable sharing of the Big Dig burden. "This is a huge increase," said Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat. "It’s devastating to my constituents." McGee warned that the higher fees will prompt many commuters to avoid toll roads and find alternative routes into Boston. "You’re going to see gridlock on 93 and on 128," he said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Turnpike board member Michael Angelini said he favored an increase in the gas tax, but he voted for the toll hike because the agency had to take action to avoid seeing its bonds reduced to junk bond status. "There’s no alternative," he said. "It’s not in our power to enact a gas tax."

The Turnpike plans to use the $100 million from the toll increase to cover its annual operating deficit of $15.9 million a year and begin to address a backlog of maintenance projects. Alan LeBovidge, the executive director of the Turnpike Authority, said the agency may float 30-year bonds to pay for some of the capital projects.

Patrick has proposed eliminating the Turnpike Authority and turning over its operations inside Route 128 to Massport and removing the tolls west of Route 128 (except at the I-84 interchange and the New York state line) and turning that section of the road over to the state Highway Department. But even streamlining carries some heavy up-front costs. LeBovidge said the cost of removing the tollbooths and reconfiguring the roads could approach $100 million.