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Turnpike OK's hefty toll hikes

East-west commuters take hit; Fees at tunnels would double


By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 15, 2008
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Daily commuters from the western suburbs would be forced to spend $250 to $500 more a year to help pay off Big Dig maintenance and debt under a set of steep toll increases approved yesterday by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority,

The cost of driving through the Allston-Brighton and Weston tollbooths would rise to $2 for cash customers early next year, up from $1.25, if the increases are given final approval after a series of public hearings.

Leaving Logan International Airport, already the most expensive drive in town, could become one of the pricier trips in the country. Tolls at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels would double, from $3.50 to $7 for cash customers and from $5.25 to $9 for taxicab drivers, who must pay a commercial fee.

That means that, with other start-up fees tacked on, the cost of taking a cab from the airport into downtown Boston would cost $13.85 before the trip begins.

"You can almost rent a car for that in some cities," said Kristin Cowdin, a New Yorker waiting for a cab yesterday at Logan.

"This is ridiculous," said Jack Freker, a Medford resident returning from a business trip. "This is 'Don't increase the taxes, but [we'll] tax you a different way.' "

The toll increases will not become final until February or March, after the Turnpike Authority board holds a series of public hearings and takes a second vote.

It will be the second toll increase in as many years, but much heftier than the 25-cent and 50-cent increases imposed in January.

The burden would be less on Fast Lane users, who would see tolls rise 50 cents at Allston-Brighton and Weston, to $1.50, and from $3 to $6 at the tunnels. This means that driving from Weston or beyond would cost an extra $2 a day to get to downtown Boston for Fast Lane users, and an extra $3 for cash customers.

The increases are so significant that local officials, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, believe that other roads will be clogged by commuters attempting to circumvent tolls.

"Everett's going to be a parking lot," said Representative Steven M. Walsh, a Lynn Democrat.

Turnpike Authority board members and managers, who began discussing new increases even as the last hike took effect, said they took no pleasure in raising tolls again. But they were forced to, they said, by a series of financial problems at the agency, including questionable investments, $2.2 billion in debt (mainly from the Big Dig), and a budget deficit that makes it difficult to maintain the complicated series of tunnels and bridges that fall under its purview.

Residents from the western suburbs who depend on the turnpike and residents of the North Shore who often use the Logan tunnels to head north on Route 1A showed up at yesterday's monthly meeting demanding a different solution: a gas tax increase that would spread the cost among more residents.

But Governor Deval Patrick's office reiterated that "a gas tax increase is not his first option, particularly at a time of fluctuating fuel costs."

"We were left with a set of very bad choices," said Bernard Cohen, Patrick's transportation secretary and chairman of the Turnpike Authority board. "There was no rabbit we could pull out of our hat today."

The increases are intended to raise $90 million to $100 million annually, which would close the authority's deficit and solve most, though not all, of its long-term maintenance needs. Cohen said he is hoping the size of the increases will prevent further hikes for another four or five years, depending on how many cars drive through the booths.

One member said the board had to act because there is no free lunch for the problem-plagued agency, which gained authority over the Big Dig in the 1990s.

But an angry group of politicians and residents from the western suburbs and North Shore said their commuters were being singled out to pay for the Big Dig because of the route they happen to drive, while others on Interstate 93 pass through the project's main tunnel and the Zakim bridge without paying anything.

"The reality is there is a free lunch," said Representative David P. Linsky, a Natick Democrat who leads a caucus of legislators from the western suburbs. "The South Shore commuters eat that free lunch, and the tollpayers from the North Shore and the western suburbs pay for that free lunch."

Linsky and other legislators from the west and the North Shore said yesterday that an increase in the state's 23.5 cent per gallon gas tax would spread Big Dig costs more equitably. That solution was endorsed last year by a special state commission and received further support from board members yesterday, but it has been opposed by several key legislators who are loath to raise taxes.

Though Patrick is working on a plan to abolish the Turnpike Authority, the tolls in Greater Boston are expected to stay in place for the foreseeable future, because there is no other source of money identified to pay the agency's debt and maintenance costs.

Under his plan, Patrick would remove most tolls west of Route 128 within 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, those tolls will not go up, though Alan LeBovidge, executive director of the Turnpike Authority, said they may be raised in July 2009 if Patrick is unable to get his plan approved by the Legislature before then.

When it approved the last toll increase last year, the authority warned that another increase would soon be needed unless the Legislature passed a series of changes proposed by Patrick, streamlining the state's transportation agencies.

But the Patrick administration failed to propose anything to the Legislature, leaving the toll debate lingering.

Patrick renewed the effort over the past two months and confirmed several key details this week. His plan would put the Big Dig and eastern portions of the turnpike under the Massachusetts Port Authority and dismantle the Turnpike Authority. Patrick has yet to spell out who would take over debt and maintenance costs, though Cohen suggested that Massport would be at least partly responsible.

The situation at the Turnpike Authority has become so tenuous that the authority's credit rating is on the verge of junk bond status. If it were to fall another notch, it would have to immediately pay a lump sum of $30 million to $40 million because of a risky investment.

Board member Mary Z. Connaughton had been pushing the authority to move faster on the toll hike, fearing that the bond rating will fall further. But she opposed the increase yesterday, instead favoring a smaller increase that would pay off less of the maintenance needs. She also proposed a freeze on hiring and salary increases for authority employees. Neither of her ideas was taken up by the board.

Though officials do not rank toll levels across the country, citing different tolling methods, the tunnels in Boston appear to be among the most expensive.

The Verzanno Narrows Bridge in New York costs more, at $10 for cash customers. Bay area bridges around San Francisco cost $4. The Miami-Dade Expressway costs $1.25 and the Pell Bridge in Newport costs $2.

Globe correspondent Anne Baker contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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