EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 7, 2013

Some support for local tolls, but would be years away

Implementing plan would be years away

By Douglas Moser

---- — Tolls are part of a menu of options for an overhaul of how the state funds its transportation system, state officials have said, reviving a discussion about a toll on Interstate 93.

Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told a state Senate panel March 25 that tolls were one of several possible revenue sources to finance transportation spending that would include increased funding for road and bridge construction and for public transportation.

Installing tolls on local Interstates has some local support, as long as it is part of a statewide toll program.

The Patrick administration has run into some opposition to its proposal to increase income taxes by 1 percent to fund transportation and education spending priorities, and legislators are looking at other options. State lawmakers have put forth their own controversial plan which would add $1 to each pack of cigarettes and 3 cents per g State Sen. Michael Moore, whose Millbury constituents pay tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, asked Davey March 25 about expanding toll burdens to other parts of the state.

The additional transportation funding in Patrick’s proposal would go toward so-called “forward funding,” which essentially covers debt maintenance so the operational budget can cover repairs and salaries, partially paid now with borrowed money, and toward repairing and expanding the existing transportation system.

Two major obstacles to charging tolls on more highways historically have been the requirement for approval from the federal Highway Administration and the need for expensive, traffic-choking toll booths. “The second reason is being taken off the table,” Davey said. He made similar comments to a panel in the state House of Representatives in February.

Installing an electronic collection system, similar to a toll on Interstate 95 in New Hampshire that does not require vehicles to stop and collects tolls electronically as vehicle speed by, removes the first obstacle, he said.

Cyndi Roy, director of communications for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the current plan, which covers about 10 years, does not envision expanding tolls beyond the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Logan Airport exits of Interstate 90 in East Boston and Route 1 on the Tobin Bridge between Charlestown and Chelsea.

The state is beginning a total shift to electronic toll collecting. Removing the gates would save about $50 million per year and could go live first on the Tobin Bridge next year, Roy said. The change will happen in phases, with the next step, changing either the airport exits or the turnpike tolls, coming no earlier than 2015.

Expanding tolls to new roads could not happen at least until that is completed. “We would have to move to all electronic tolling first,” she said. “We don’t have an immediate plan for tolling other highways.”

But new tolls are not off the table in the future. After the shift, the Legislature could ask the federal Highway Administration to approve new interstate tolls.

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, said she would support a toll on Interstate 93 near Route 128, where the traffic volume is heaviest, as part of a broader expansion of tolling highways in Massachusetts.

“I do think it’s something the commonwealth needs to look at because it allows folks that use the system to be part of the solution,” she said.

Many of her colleagues, along with business leaders in the commonwealth, believe the current system is not sustainable and must change, she said. Highway and public transit agencies spend borrowed money on regular operations and salaries, and are spending an increasing amount of money on debt service. But converting a belief in change into an approved bill for the governor to sign will be tricky.

Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed increasing the income tax 1 percent to 6.3 percent and lowering the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent. His plan would also change income tax deductions, and Patrick has promised residents in households earning less than $65,000 per year that they will wind up paying less in taxes under his plan than they do now. Households earning between $65,000 and $100,000 would pay about the same, and those earning more than $100,000 would pay more.

The plan would raise about $1.9 billion per year, with $1 billion used for transportation and much of the rest used for education.

Many Democrats in the Merrimack Valley have balked at such a steep increase in the income tax, even when paired with a cut in sales tax many think would help communities along the border with sales-tax-free New Hampshire. They have said they would support smaller increases, combined with other sources of revenue.

Legislative leaders on Tuesday unveiled a plan that would leave income and sales taxes alone, increased taxes on gasoline and cigarettes, and altered technical aspects of parts of the tax code to bring in more revenue from businesses. That proposal was estimated to increase transportation spending by $500 million and focuses on bolstering operating budgets, rather than funding expansions in service and new repair projects.

Patrick has called that proposal a “shell game,” said he would veto that proposal in its current form. In a conference call with reporters Friday, Patrick said the debate is not “my way or the highway,” and he wanted a more open dialogue with legislators to work toward compromise that includes what he sees as adequate funding for operations and necessary repairs and expansions.

“The way we look at this (Legislature’s) bill, all the constituents are asked to pay more, but they’re not going to see any of those new investments,” Patrick said. “It doesn’t have to be an acceptance of my proposal as condition of rejecting the Legislature’s. We have couple ideas of how to do that.”

New polling shows a nuanced public opinion on the tax plan. While many oppose a tax increase, whether in the income tax, the gasoline tax or a miles-driven tax, as a general revenue source, support grows if the money is diverted only for transportation.

A report on a series of polls and focus groups released March 14 by the Boston think tank MassINC showed that support for income tax increases among the public stood barely at a majority if the revenue would go into the state’s general fund. But support increased to 56 percent if the additional revenue were directed to public transportation, and to 62 percent if directed to road and bridge work.

“Those are considerably higher levels than we were expecting or we thought we would see,” said Steve Koczela, President of the MassINC Polling Group and one of the authors of the report. “We didn’t really know what the levels would be. But to see such strong, consistent majority wasn’t something we anticipated.”

Eric Bourassa, director of the transportation division of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Boston area regional planning agency, said beyond Boston, the governor’s proposal would increase the operating budget of the MBTA, which is struggling with debt accumulated over the years and as part of the Big Dig. A boost in funding means the T could focus on improving service and scheduling of commuter rail lines, replacing the decades-old cars, and implementing a schedule of small, incremental fare increases, rather than the spike in fare imposed last year.

The plan also would increase funding for regional transit authorities. Bourassa said they currently exist as a last resort for many people who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive. The systems, which also tend to operate on borrowed money, should be funded enough to adjust routes to go where people are going and to expand the schedule.

“If we want to take it to next level, to expand service and target areas where we have more commuter services, they need more resources,” he said.

State House News Service contributed to this report

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