Toll wars are back

Western Massachusetts is in an uproar over the planned reintroduction of tolls on Exits 1 through 6 of the Massachusetts Turnpike on October 15.

The recently passed transportation finance law mandates reestablishing the tolls that were discontinued in 1996. The law specifies a “fair and reasonable fee structure,” so the rates will be the same as they were 17 years ago. The change affects only passenger vehicles; commercial ones already pay the fee. WWLP calculates that the increase could cost some drivers up to $1000 a year.

The Republican quotes Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, Democrat of Amherst, as saying, “I’ve heard from very, very few people who are upset about this.”

Whether that’s an accurate barometer of views in the region will become clearer next month. Public hearings scheduled to be held in Lee and Springfield in September will allow people to vent their brewing frustration upon any state legislator in attendance along with Highway Commissioner Frank DePaola and other MassDOT officials.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, and Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, want to see Berkshire residents receive discounts for regional travel on the turnpike and are likely to use the hearings to propose such reductions.

The region’s residents appear to have been caught by surprise by the plan, which was overshadowed by recent debate over taking down those same western tolls, loopholes notwithstanding, in 2017.

The outrage ignores a major problem: The state needs an infusion of funds from somewhere to tackle the backlog of highway and bridge repairs on the western section of the turnpike, and a user fee is the most practical way to pay for those needs.

The tolls will generate up to $15 million a year to go into the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund. The money cannot be used east of Interstate 95/Route 128. It should lessen the sting a bit once the fact that metro Boston won’t benefit is more widely known.

However, members of the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation have explained the move with some curious logic. Rosenberg argued that New York, New Jersey, and other out-of-state drivers pay 80 percent of the tolls. If picking the pockets of Yankee fans to fix Bay State roads is a rationale, then why are the rates set at 1996 levels? Are infrastructure repairs to be billed in 1990s dollars?  And why wait to institute the hike after Columbus Day Weekend, when thousands of out-of-state drivers will already be back home after leaf-peeping their way through the Berkshires and other points west?

The hearings are also likely to reintroduce the long-simmering debate over tolling other interstate highways, including I-93 and I-95. Northeastern Massachusetts residents have vociferously opposed tolling I-93.

However, the new transportation law includes a provision that requires MassDOT to:  “Develop a comprehensive tolling plan for additional interstate and limited access state highways within the commonwealth on or before July 1, 2018 which shall consider …necessary waivers or approvals from the Federal Highway Administration to toll additional interstate highways…and other available tolling options.”

The plan is due by the end of this year. State lawmakers and administration officials will have to tread carefully on the federal issue as it is strewn with minefields. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell tried to toll Interstate 80, the main east-west artery in the Keystone State, and failed primarily because the state intended to use the money for other transportation assets in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Federal law requires that toll monies be used be used on the tolled road; but another prohibition in the current highway bill effectively prohibits tolling altogether.

In an appearance before the congressional Joint Economic Committee last month, Rendell, now a co-chair of Building America’s Future, a national group that promotes infrastructure investment, called for an end to the federal ban on tolling on interstate highways. Perhaps Massachusetts officials should have him come up to Boston for a chat.

                                                                                                                                                               –GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

State Sen. Dan Wolf tells CommonWealth he’ll likely step down from office if the Ethics Commission doesn’t change its ruling and says he doesn’t have “sufficient appetite” to challenge its findings in court.

State Rep. Robert Koczera says he is confident the Legislature will pass and the governor will sign a controversial home rule petition for rent control at mobile home parks in Acushnet.

The film R.I.P.D. was a dud at the box office, but a hit with with the Massachusetts film tax credit program. The film received a $27 million tax credit from Massachusetts, double what it made in its opening weekend, the Boston Business Journal reports.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The city is considering handing a tax break to the developer of a tower at the former site of Filene’s in downtown Boston, a handout Mayor Tom Menino adamantly refused to offer to the previous firm with development rights at the site.

The Herald endorses a bid by Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley to wrest liquor license control from Beacon Hill.

A white man who was fired by the city of Lawrence for refusing to return to work when his wife was dying sues the city, claiming minority employees charged with serious crimes were kept on indefinite paid leaves, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

No one in Boston city government could explain how Lisa Saunders, part of the big-shot family that owned the Park Plaza Hotel for decades, managed to secure her own personal valet parking space, though Globe reporter Sean Murphy did find out she hired a South Boston developer with close ties to top mayoral aide Michael Kineavy to help her navigate the thicket of city bureaucracy.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno asks the US State Department to do something about the number of refugees in the city.

CASINOS

Raynham voters, by an 87-13 margin, gave their approval for a slots parlor at the town’s former dog racing track, making it the first community in the state to pass a host agreement for that type of facility as mandated in the gaming law.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Beginning next year, a new California law will allow transgender students to compete on sports teams and use bathrooms based on their gender identity rather than their sex, the Los Angeles Times reports.

New York’s Jonathan Chait breaks down the current state of Washington dysfunction: “The terms of the debate within the GOP are so extreme that, in order to take on the most implacable fanatics, the forces of relative moderation have themselves ventured far out into the delusional.” To wit, the alternative to Marco Rubio’s fiscal armageddon is a plan endorsed by Grover Norquist.

ELECTIONS

In their own words, Boston’s mayoral candidates explain the biggest challenge they expect to face, CommonWealth reports.

Daniel Donahue, an aide to Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, wins a five-person Democratic primary race for the seat vacated by former rep John Fresolo, who resigned amid an Ethics Commission investigation, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

Dan Cullinane, a former aide to state Rep. Marty Walsh and ex-city councilor Maureen Feeney scored a decisive win a low-turnout three-way special election Democratic primary for the 12th Suffolk House seated vacated by Dorchester’s Linda Dorcena Forry when she won a state Senate seat. He’ll face two independent candidates in the September 10 final election.

Former governor’s councilor Carole Fiola won the four-way Democratic primary for the 6th Bristol Representative seat and will square off against Republican Dr. David Steinhof in the special election on September 10.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk will face a challenger after all, as a developer submits signatures at the last minute to challenge her, the Gloucester Times reports.

A Globe editorial says candidates should tell outside organizations spending money to support their campaigns to butt out of the Boston mayor’s race.

The lawyer for Brockton mayoral candidate Bill Carpenter sent a letter threatening legal action against the moderator of a Facebook group whose page posted information about Carpenter’s past financial problems including several bankruptcy filings that are public record.

Cory Booker advances toward a New Jersey US Senate seat.

Anthony Weiner is considering turning his failing campaign for New York mayor/spectacular exercise in self-immolation into a reality TV show.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Closing costs for home purchases in Massachusetts dropped slightly last year, moving the state from 14th to 41st in rankings and making the state one of the few in the nation that saw a decrease.

The Department of Justice is trying to block the merger of American Airlines and US Airways that would create the nation’s largest airline, saying such a marriage would cause “substantial harm to consumers.” The Wall Street Journal makes the case that previous mergers have been bad for consumers.

Paul Levy says companies who use Kickstarter, an online crowdsourcing site to raise capital funds, need to be transparent about progress to those who invest money and faith in the venture.

State Sen. Robert Hedlund is looking to open a second restaurant across the street from his pub in Braintree’s Weymouth Landing.

The White House tamps down the campaign against Larry Summers for Federal Reserve chairman. Maureen Dowd pushes back against the inevitability of a Summers-led Fed; she sees a pro-Summers campaign by the White House boys’ club and “the Wall Street types like former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin who paved the way for the country’s ruin” as reason enough to oppose him.

HEALTH CARE

A new state analysis shows that almost one-third of all health care dollars for acute care last year went to Partners HealthCare.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Responding to a CommonWealth report, Peter Shattuck of Environment Northeast says the state needs to track the benefits of green energy mandates as well as the costs.

The digital economy is an energy hog: The ubiquitous iPhone uses more electricity than a medium-size refrigerator, Time reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The Suffolk County district attorney’s office says it will examine whether any criminal state charges could be brought against Whitey Bulger or any of his associates.

Two jurors in Bulger’s now-concluded federal trial share insights on the tension-filled days that the jury deliberated before returning verdicts.

The chief financial officer at the Lowell Housing Authority is arrested for buying 2 ounces of marijuana, the Sun reports.

MEDIA

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

AOL’s chief apologizes for firing an employee during a conference call with nearly 1,000 Patch workers while explaining the need for layoffs at the hyper-local news service, the New York Times reports.

Australia’s Liberal Party leader becomes the butt of jokes when he mistakenly says George Bush was not “the suppository of all wisdom,” the Guardian reports.