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Pike toll increase may get steeper

Planned hike won't cover debt, two officials say

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials acknowledged yesterday that they are reviewing whether toll increases scheduled for January will be adequate to cover expenses at the financially strapped agency, under pressure from two board members who are warning that a steeper increase is inevitable.

Under a plan approved in the late 1990s, tolls are tentatively scheduled to rise on Jan. 1 from $1 to $1.25 at the Allston and Weston booths and from $3 to $3.75 at the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels to help cover $1.4 billion in Big Dig debt.

"But as of now, the exact amount of the toll increase to fulfill these bond obligations has not been determined," Turnpike spokesman Mac Daniel said in a statement.

The agency, which relies on tolls for 78 percent of its revenue, is facing a $26 million increase in debt payments next year, in addition to $25 million in deferred maintenance and the challenge of continuing to pay $12 million annually for Fast Lane discounts. The planned toll increase is expected to raise only $25 million a year.

Board members Mary Z. Connaughton and Judy M. Pagliuca said that these expenses, which were not anticipated in the 1990s, will drive tolls higher and put an increased burden on motorists. Connaughton said she could not predict how much more tolls would have to increase, but said the increase could be substantial.

"The point is that this table was set by the Turnpike Authority back in 1997, and this is all coming to a head right now," Connaughton said yesterday. "The chickens have come home to roost, and we have to deal with it."

Said Pagliuca: "The planned toll increase isn't enough, and the financial pressures are significant." Both Connaughton and Pagliuca were appointed to the five-member board by former governor Mitt Romney.

The agency operated at a $50 million deficit last year, including $8 million lost due to the closing of the Interstate 90 connector tunnel after its ceiling collapsed, killing a Jamaica Plain woman.

"The Turnpike is facing serious problems," said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "It's a virtual certainty that they have to raise tolls greater than the planned increases, and the only question is how much."

Widmer served on the Transportation Finance Commission, which recently predicted that the authority's costs for maintenance would continue to grow as final elements of the project were completed and began to age.

"This should be a top priority of the Turnpike Authority, but it is unclear if tolls alone will be enough to cover the growing cost in the future," the commission warned in a March report.

State Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen, who chairs the Turnpike board, declined comment on the tolls yesterday. Governor Deval Patrick will probably have considerable influence over any toll vote because there are two vacancies on the five-member Turnpike board, both of which he plans to fill soon.

Connaughton pointed to the popular Fast Lane discount program as another example of the Turnpike's spiraling financial troubles. The discounts, which began in 2002, had been funded with proceeds from the sale of a parcel of Turnpike land in Allston, but that money will run out next year, she said. The authority is also facing $244 million in unfunded healthcare costs for its retired workers, she said.

"They absolutely need more money," said Stephen J. Silveira, a lawyer and member of the Transportation Finance Commission.

Alan G. MacDonald, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and a member of the Transportation Finance Commission, agreed that the authority may have to consider higher tolls.

"They do have to find a way to handle operations and maintenance without one-time monies," MacDonald said

Connaughton said she would offer a plan to shift the burden of a higher than anticipated toll increase to commercial traffic and to drivers who use the tunnels, which she said would spare drivers from the central and western parts of the state. "My fundamental belief is that central and western drivers are paying unfairly for the Big Dig and for this to go up, only makes that inequity greater," Connaughton said.

Daniel said the agency will hold a series of public hearings on the toll increases before making a formal recommendation to the board.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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