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Residents west of Boston rally against toll hikes

Posted December 18, 2008 09:32 AM

By Julia Rappaport, Globe Correspondent

Despite the cold, icy weather, Memorial Building in Framingham was full Wednesday night with residents and politicians opposing proposed toll increases for the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Although the audience section was packed, the table at the front of the room was not. Of the six seats arranged for Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board members, only three were filled when executive director Alan LeBovidge called the hearing to order at 6:30 p.m.

The rest of the board, LeBovidge explained, was stuck in traffic.

It was a fitting start to a hearing at which speakers lined up to oppose proposed toll hikes that would bump fees at the Weston and Allston-Brighton tolls from $1.25 to $2 and double fees at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels.

The Turnpike Authority has said the move could add up to $100 million to its revenue stream.

The hearing was the third of four scheduled throughout the Boston area and began just hours after Mayor Thomas Menino testified against the toll increases in a legislative hearing at the State House. The final hearing will take place on Jan. 7 at Worcester City Hall.

An estimated 150 people turned out in Framingham Wednesday and called for a united front to fight against the hikes.

“There’s nothing we can do as one. There’s something we can do together,” Jason Smith, chairman of the Framingham board of selectmen, said before a small crowd that rallied on the Memorial Building steps before the hearing. “We’re ready to stop being this state’s ATM,” Smith called out to the bipartisan group of state senators and representatives and area residents that gathered.

Also at the rally were members of the activist opposition group Stop the Pike who earlier in the week protested the hikes by paying their toll fees in pennies.

There was one speaker at the rally who needed no introduction. Mary Connaughton of Framingham, the sole member of the Turnpike Authority board who did not take part in the initial vote to recommend the toll hikes, took to the steps amidst cheers and applause.

Connaughton called for a statewide effort to oppose the hikes. “If we just keep this a regional issue, it’s not going to go anywhere,” she said. “The time to correct this is now.”

The intensity continued inside the hall once the hearing began.

Framingham resident David Hutchinson got up to speak, and the crowd broke into cheers when he called for an end to tolls. “We have paid and paid,” he shouted into the microphone. “There’s no more! There’s no more in this till!"

Peter Chisholm, director of public relations for Framingham State College, said the toll would put pressure on the school’s commuting students. He said the college has 4.500 commuting students and estimated that up to 2,000 use the turnpike daily. “That would mean an extra $7.50 a week for the average student,” he said.

“I have two questions: Why and how,” said Michael Kelleher of East Boston and founder of Stop the Pike. “Why are we here and what do we have to say to take this off the table?”

Legislator after legislator pleaded with the board to reconsider the hikes. “This would mean more than a 100-percent toll increase in the span of one year. That is too much for my constituents and the people of Metro West to bear,” said David Linsky, a state representative from Natick who has filed a bill to eliminate turnpike tolls altogether.

Tom Sannicandro, a state representative of Ashland and Framingham, said the toll hikes would leave commuters west of Boston footing the bill for the Big Dig. “We would be paying for something we’re not even using,” he said.

And from state senator Bruce Tarr of First Essex and Middlesex Counties came a plea for responsibility. “Please, devise a comprehensive solution that the nation will follow in trying to solve our transportation problems,” he said.

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