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.
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.
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.
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