News your connection to The Boston Globe

Lean on the gas

THE MASSACHUSETTS Turnpike Authority is in deep financial trouble. Unless it receives help from the rest of state government, the authority will need to raise tolls next year to pay for the construction and maintenance of the Central Artery system. That's unfair to turnpike uses who don't go near the artery tunnel. Commuters from northern and southern suburbs of Boston get a free ride -- literally.

Legislators gave the authority control of artery maintenance in 1997; allowed it to assume $1.4 billion in construction debt in 1999-2000; and, after a controversy over a toll increase in 2002, forced the authority to establish discounts for Fast Lane users. But the authority can only be a cash cow for so long. The special Transportation Finance Commission, established by the Legislature in 2004, figures that the Turnpike Authority faces a $531 million shortfall for the system inside Route 128, even with regular toll increases.

The authority caused a stir last week when, in the process of discussing plans to seek a new company to run toll collections, staffers revealed that it was considering charging higher tolls for rush hour travel -- "congestion pricing" in transportation-speak. This might be a good idea, if used selectively to manage highway congestion, but not as an excuse for a toll increase.

Whatever happens with congestion pricing, holders of turnpike bonds expect the authority to raise tolls by 25 percent next year. The Legislature needs to preempt the inevitable, and justifiable, outcry in the western suburbs once the news of these increases sinks in.

The Finance Commission ought to help. It was established to figure out how the state will pay for its transportation commitments. After seemingly interminable deliberations, it is about to release recommendations for solutions to the funding crisis it outlined in a report earlier this year.

The commission is sure to propose a range of choices, but the one that should be the centerpiece is that bulwark of highway finance -- the gasoline tax. The state tax now stands at 23.5 cents per gallon (with 2.5 cents reserved for disposal of old service-station tanks.) The 21 cents reserved for transportation expenses hasn't been raised since 1991. Inflation alone has cut the value of the tax to 14 cents.

With gasoline prices so high, few motorists are going to like an increase, but the governor and Legislature have an obligation to keep the Turnpike Authority solvent, equalize the burden of paying for the artery, and finance other transportation initiatives around the state.

Once state government accepts the need for a tax hike, it can engage in a conversation about whether, and where, turnpike tolls should be phased out. With or without tolls, the gasoline tax needs to go up.