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Vote averts proposed toll increases

Turnpike officials OK smaller hikes

Despite high debt and the need to find hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged road and bridge repairs, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority voted yesterday to hold off on the major toll increases proposed two weeks ago.

Instead, the Authority gave preliminary approval to hikes of 25 cents at the Allston-Brighton and Weston toll booths and 50 cents at the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels, effective in January. These increases had been scheduled for nearly a decade, as part of the plan for paying off Big Dig debt.

"It's hardly heroic," board member Michael Angelini said before voting for the plan. "We are taking a short-term step."

Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen, who is also chairman of the Turnpike Authority board, said he will give the Legislature a year to work with him and other members of Governor Deval Patrick's administration to find savings.

But "if a comprehensive reform of transportation does not occur within the next year," Cohen said, the authority would have to come back and seek additional toll increases.

Cohen spoke earlier this week and again yesterday about merging the Turnpike Authority with the Massachusetts Highway Department and creating a new board that would also oversee the state's rail service. But he and other administration officials have emphasized that Patrick's plans, which they say will save money through eliminating redundancies, are still in the formative stages. They have offered no estimates of how much money they would save.

Cohen said he is also counting on approval of Patrick's plans for casino gambling to bring money for transportation needs, a proposal that would require legislative approval.

If the authority gives the toll hikes final approval later this month, it would collect an additional $25 million each year. Last month, Turnpike staff said they needed $100 million annually to pay off financial obligations.

Cohen said he will try to restructure the Turnpike's debt, trim the Authority's budget by 5 percent and dip into reserves for the next two years to make up the difference. Cohen said he does not know how much he will need to take out of the $91 million reserve fund.

But yesterday's vote could have the biggest effect on repairs. The authority has set aside $25 million in its annual budget to pay for repairs. But staff members said last month that they needed an additional $50 million this year and each of the next four to fix 16 structurally deficient bridges, refurbish tunnels, and repair roads. Cohen's plan leaves those needs unmet, though he said there is enough money to ensure roads remain safe.

"We are acknowledging that this is a short-term solution," Cohen said.

Last month, the Turnpike Authority proposed much larger toll hikes, increasing the $3 tolls on the tunnels to as much as $6 and the $1 tolls in Weston and Allston to as much as $1.75. On the same day, a key transportation panel appointed by the Legislature laid out several steps intended to generate the estimated $15 billion to $19 billion the state will need to rebuild its transportation infrastructure over the next 20 years.

Members of the Transportation Finance Commission said commuters need to come to grips with paying more because gambling and restructuring would not raise enough money to fix the crumbling roads.

"It's disappointing, the notion of dipping into the reserve funds," Stephen Silveira, chairman of the Transportation Finance Commission, said yesterday, "putting more burden on tomorrow's users to solve today's problems."

Fellow finance commission member Michael Widmer, who leads the Massachusetts Tax Foundation, said the Turnpike Authority board's vote was irresponsible.

"It's largely wishful thinking that there will be a proposal that would save money," Widmer said. "They have not identified any savings. It's a wing and a prayer at this point."

But the vote was welcome news to legislators from Boston's western suburbs, who have long complained that the turnpike fees put too much burden on their residents to cover Big Dig costs.

"We dodged a bullet today," said Representative David Linsky of Natick.

Authority board members will take a final vote on tolls later this month, after public hearings. At that time, some members said, they would like to consider eliminating the toll increase at the Allston-Brighton and Weston booths and instead impose a larger increase at the tunnels.

Many commuters had expected larger increases. Ken Gloss, who drives from Newton to his downtown bookstore every day, said he does not usually notice how much he is paying because he has a Fast Lane transponder.

"It's a necessary evil, I guess," he said. "The quarter's not going to make any difference whatsoever in how we drive."

Ghulam Ahmed, who drives a bakery truck, said that any increase is too much. "I don't think it's fair," he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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