Saturday, 2:15 PM
Turnpike board approves toll increases
(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
Cars approaching Boston today at the Allston-Brighton tolls.
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority today approved a set of staggered toll hikes that will rise or fall depending on whether the Legislature increases the state gas tax.
The toll hikes, approved on a 4-1 vote, could eventually cost commuters hundreds of dollars per year. In the meantime, the complex plan is likely to baffle them.
The compromise toll hike – forged amid months of protests and public deliberations – comes in two steps. The first increase takes effect March 29 – bringing cash tolls to $1.50 at the Allston-Brighton and Weston tolls and to $5.50 at the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels. That’s an increase of 25 cents at the turnpike booths inside Route 128 and $2 at the tunnels, with discounts for Fast Lane users.
The second hike takes effect July 1 – bringing cash tolls to $2 at the booths inside Route 128 and $7 at the tunnels.
Board members said both of the increases can be averted if the Legislature increases the gas tax before they take effect. If the Legislature raises the gas tax after tolls go up, the toll increases will be rolled back, they promised.
The unusual arrangement follows more than a year of public and private concern over the turnpike authority’s financial situation. Commuters have been outraged over earlier plans to raise $100 million more in tolls all at once. They formed new organizations and showed up by the hundreds to rallies and public hearings.
Governor Deval Patrick’s administration had promised repeatedly since late 2007 to present an alternative plan, but was unable to do so in time to avoid Tuesday’s vote. Legislators have complained that Patrick’s latest plan, announced last week, pressures them to act quickly on the gas tax to avoid the toll hike. They urged Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., who chairs the Turnpike board, to delay the vote for a third time in as many months.
But Turnpike board members said they had no choice but to approve an increase today, even if it is a conditional increase. They worry the authority’s slipping credit rating will otherwise decline to junk bond status, risking hundreds of millions in lump sum payments owed to pay off risky and complex investments and jeopardizing other state agencies’ ability to borrow.
The first hike is meant to get the authority through the end of its current budget year, by raising $12.8 million to plug an $8.1 million budget gap. The second phase of the toll increase would raise $100 million a year, divided mostly between debt payments and structural upgrades to roads and bridges that have been falling apart.
Without a gas tax or some other source of money, the authority predicts another toll increase on or near July 2014, when debt payments balloon.