Growing calls to tackle traffic’s toll

Pioneer Institute leaders say Baker should OK pilot toll program

NEVER MIND THE Democratic Legislature or smart growth and transportation advocacy groups. Gov. Charlie Baker is now getting pressure to embrace a pilot program calling for variable-price tolling from the state’s leading conservative think tank.

Baker has strongly signaled his dislike of a provision of the state budget sitting on his desk that calls for a pilot study of congestion-price tolling in Massachusetts.

The proposal would discount tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Tobin Bridge, and the two Boston Harbor tunnels for drivers during off-peak hours. The idea is to create an incentive for drivers with some flexibility to schedule trips at times when the Boston-area roadways aren’t gridlocked with weekday commuters. As the Boston Globe said in an editorial last week, it seems like the sort of thing the wonky, data-focused governor would embrace.

But Baker has instead hinted at a coming veto of the provision, saying constituents would view it as “incredibly punitive.” The Boston Herald reported that some drivers are concerned that discounts for off-peak travel would eventually disappear and the differential pricing would be achieved by increasing tolls for peak travel times.

While some may see the pilot plan as punitive, that appears to be a minority opinion. A survey by the MassINC Polling Group commissioned by the Barr Foundation found 61 percent of Massachusetts voters support the idea, while 30 percent oppose it.

“With numbers like that, you’d think the proposal would sail through like a car going under one the state’s new all-electronic tolling gates,” wrote Steve Koczela and Rich Parr of the MassINC Polling Group.

The poll did find, however, that voters oppose the idea of raising tolls for peak travel times as opposed to discounting off-peak travel.

“Charging more for something that is both scarce and in high demand (i.e. road space at rush hour) follows fairly basic economic principles,” write Koczela and Parr, noting that the MBTA is applying that very concept to the pricing of some parking lots at T stations.

Perhaps Baker is looking at the issue as one where he takes a stand in the run-up to the fall election on behalf of the conservative base of his party, a group that has been less than thrilled with his middle-of-the-road ways.

But a veto may come off as more head-in-sand than line-in-the-sand. Increasingly gridlocked roads are a reality, not an ideological position. Perhaps the clearest sign of that is an op-ed posted yesterday in support of the pilot program from the leaders of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute that Baker once ran.

“Massachusetts could reject this pilot proposal even before trying it out, but that would suggest that we have good alternatives,” write Pioneer’s executive director Jim Stergios and senior fellow Charlie Chieppo in the Boston Business Journal.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

We can either build more roadways or figure out ways to use existing ones more efficiently, they say. Given the cost and time needed to do the former — as well as the already long backlog of needed repair work — they say the pilot toll discount program is worth a try.

The average Boston driver spends 60 hours a year stuck in traffic, a big drain on economic productivity and contributor to unnecessary fuel use and air pollution, they write.

“Rejecting the pilot is akin to either throwing in the towel and telling people they are destined to sit in ever-longer traffic jams, or like asking people to pray for an economic downturn,” write Stergios and Chieppo. If the pilot results aren’t promising, they say, the state can always scrap the idea. “But standing still is not an option.”