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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

For whom the road tolls

It's no surprise that Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen's proposal to count car volume on the Zakim Bridge and has earned the tsk-tsks of legislators from the north of Boston. Or the cold shoulder from his boss.

It means the time may soon be coming when they pay their "fare" share for the $15 billion in highway improvements they use daily for their commutes into Boston.

And while Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Steve Panagiotakis of Lowell and House Transportation Committee Chair Steve Baddour of Methuen are correct that this is a tough time to be raising commuter costs -- I have one response: Times are tough all over.

A Toll Equity Working Group put together by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has developed a remarkably detailed report, listing 37 issues surrounding turnpike and tunnel tolls. And to no one's surprise, the majority deal with equity issues.

Simply put, commuters from Metrowest, who use the turnpike or its extension, pay the lion's share of the cost of the Big Dig -- even if they don't travel on the new 1-93, use the O'Neill Tunnel or Zakim Bridge.

Commuters from Lowell or Methuen -- and Duxbury and Milton -- are being subsidized by those from Framingham and Natick. And there's only one way to describe that: wrong.

But that's the sad fact of life since the Legislature took the easy way out in the way way out, created the Massachusetts Highway System and dumped all escalating Big Dig costs on western commuters -- except those beyond Exit 6.

And let's not forget Bill Weld's grandstanding move to level the Newton toll booth -- a stunt that probably benefited him more than the commuters who did not use that entry point.

I have no dog in this hunt. I walk, or take the other form of transportation that has been hit with regular cost increases -- the MBTA.

Everyone is being hit with the exorbitant cost of oil and gasoline -- even T riders. But except for Big Dig users, they don't have the latest in technology (Green Line Breda cars, puhleeze!)

And in case no one noticed, the state's roads and bridges are in a mess -- in some measure because of all the money that was poured into the Big Dig. It's going to take BILLIONS to fix those bridges before they crumble.

Cohen and the Turnpike Authority are simply doing something that was never done during the years the state's highway system was being directed by a series of hacks named Kerasiotis and Amorello. It's called contingency planning.

And it's a welcome change in the way of doing business.

So by all means, go look for efficiencies and savings. Eliminate the payroll patriots who have larded the Turnpike Authority's books during 16 years of GOP rule.

But don't make a decision based on the unhappiness of people who will see an end to their gravy train. Who knows, maybe they can even try commuter rail to keep their costs down.

Mike Dukakis took the Green Line. Mitt Romney didn't even know the cost of subway fare. Maybe Deval Patrick should park the Cadillac and set an example by getting a Charlie Card?

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Blogger Dan Kennedy said...

How about the commonwealth pays double your tolls to your estate if the tunnel caves in while you're inside it? That would make this a much more palatable idea, don't you think?

May 20, 2008 9:54 PM  
Blogger Outraged Liberal said...

That would be a pretty substantial piece of change. How about double the pool fee and tolls to get out of the airport in a cab tossed in for good measure?

May 22, 2008 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I realize it's unfair that the Pike is the only toll road in the state, putting up tolls on I-93 would create enormous traffic jams. These traffic jams, with all the idling engines, certainly would not be compatible with any carbon managemnet strategies that the city or state is trying to implement.

To raise revenue to help fund road & bridge repair, a gas tax (or slightly increasing the existing state gas tax) would be much more equitable, and would not "single out" the users of any particular road.

And, like it or not, increasing the cost of fuel does affect behavior (i.e. less driving alone, more carpooling, more use of public transit), which has benefits.

May 23, 2008 4:22 PM  
Anonymous smarter than the pols said...

anonymous has it right - the answer to an mistake is NOT to repeat it on a broader scale so that everyone suffers, but to eliminate the initial poor decision which was to use tolls as a means to collect revenue. Eliminating toll collection and replacing the revenue via a gas tax increase will save all of us all the expenses of current toll collection, as well as the huge infrastructure investment and toll collection costs of expanding tolls. Tolls waste gas, waste money, waste time, and target specific people to pay for transportation investments that benefit the entire economy. They are a lousy way to raise revenue, and the current Authority has become a patronage playground.

May 23, 2008 8:37 PM  
Anonymous Jasper said...

Although I support a gradual and sustained increase in gasoline taxes (and using at least some of the money for public transportation improvements), the reality is the gas tax can't accomplish a couple of important outcomes that can be achieved with tolls.

In the first place, it would make a lot of sense to implement congestion pricing of highways, so that someone contributing to traffic jams (and excess pollution) pays more than someone breezing down the highway at 11:30am.

Secondly, some roads, and some parts of our highway infrastructure, are more costly to build and maintain that others. It may well make economic sense to charge more for using the Zakim bridge, say, than for using a local street. Again, this type of rational road pricing can be achieved via tolls, but not via gasoline taxes.

Now, I personally am not a big fan of toll booths. But we could (and should!) eliminate these entirely via mandatory use of electronic tags, and surveillance cameras. Those who fail to install the former in their cars would receive a bill in the mail. Say goodbye to toll both bottlenecks!

In any event, it's high time to end the unfair toll regime currently in existence -- which in essence amounts to a state tax affecting only a portion of the Commonwealth.

Needless to say I won't hold my breath waiting for Beacon Hill to take action.

May 24, 2008 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

When is MA going to drag itself into the 21st century. London has a toll charging system that uses no tags or toll booths (and their well larded employees) - just cameras equipped with Automatic Number Plate (license plate to you) recognition. They do this on EVERY one of the cities entry roads. Putting ANPR on 93 doesn't seem like rocket science to me.

May 24, 2008 12:44 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

The tolls are needed for those who use it most and for the liability of those who use it. Remember the tunnel ceiling collapse? Settlement of the wrongful death lawsuit and other possible catastrophic problems are ahead...

May 24, 2008 8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone answer objectively if we have tolls on the Mass Pike at Rte 128 and Allston/Brighton and the state is wide open to considering a re-installement of them at Rte 16 in Newton, why should they not be on the Zakim Bridge and I-93? We tolerate traffic jams at 128, Allston/Brighton, and elsewhere, so exactly why is it inappropriate to have I-93 #1 on the list? I just don't get it.

May 24, 2008 12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one even mentions the Tobin Bridge toll... it was 50 cents in the mid 90's... now it is $3.00. We on the North Shore were told that it was raised to cover Massport's share of the big dig. The bridge itself is a total piece of junk that seems to always be a state of disrepair. The excuses we have been told (harsh weather)... please. I agree that it is a total crock that people on the North Shore are now paying 6x for the Tobin... a very old bridge... and if you get off at City Square as I do... you don't even use the Big Dig. Meanwhile, all the people from the South Shore get a free ride in.

Just eliminate the tolls altogether and raise the gas tax. It is the only equitable way. Everyone benefits from major road projects, even if you don't use them... right? That is why I am paying extra on the Tobin!

With a much higher cost to fill up, maybe people will start driving smaller cars again which will be better overall for the safety of everyone driving and won't chew up the roads as much. I guess I can only dream.

May 24, 2008 11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am just curious what the volume of traffic is on 93 compared to these other areas spoken of. I know right now 93 is backed up to stoneham from boston almost daily, and that is without tolls.

May 25, 2008 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Shana L. said...

Tolls on the Zakim are a horrible horrible idea. Somerville and Medford residents are already burdened with having I-93 and the commuter rail run directly through our communities. The commuter rail doesn't even bother to stop anywhere in Somerville. I-93 lowers our air quality and increases noise pollution. And now, with the new runway paths at Logan, we have a steady new barrage of planes flying overhead as well. The last thing I'd want is a slew of commuters trying to cheap out of the tolls by cutting through our residential areas. Frankly, we bear enough of the transportation burden for this region already.

May 25, 2008 5:20 PM  
Anonymous AG said...

I just moved, so I no longer suffer the $1000 a year cost of communting from Cambridge/Brookline out to Natick everyday (ya'll on the north and south shores are welcome)

To those who whine about tolls on 93 or 95 I have two answers:

1. Try going to Chicago, Washington DC, or Atlanta where EVERYONE has a Fastlane tag and cars buzz through the tolls at 60 MPH. Doesn't hold up much traffic there.

2. Take 5%+ of the toll revenue and invest it in public transit (ideally in under-served Somerville and an outer loop). Transit and tolls together would take cars off the highway, save lives, and generally make our city a better place to live.

May 27, 2008 10:30 AM  

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