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Bid to end some Pike tolls edges ahead

Two more members of the Turnpike Authority voiced cautious support yesterday for fellow board member Christy Mihos's proposal to eliminate the tollbooths along the Turnpike from Weston to the New York border, creating a majority who say abolishing the tolls deserves a closer look.

But board members Jordan Levy and Matthew Amorello said they would withhold final approval until they examine the financial details of Mihos's plan, which calls for the state to sell the leases to 11 service plazas along the Turnpike to pay off its $239 million debt. Mihos plans to present the plan at a meeting of the five-member board next month.

Many drivers, particularly those who commute to Boston from the western suburbs, have long complained that the Turnpike tolls are an unfair financial burden that commuters along Interstate 93 and routes 128 and 3 do not have to pay.

Yesterday, Levy and Amorello, chairman of the Turnpike Authority, said through a spokesman that Mihos's proposal deserves further examination.

"Any idea that will give people relief from paying tolls is a good idea," said Levy, a former Worcester mayor and authority board member since 1998. "I've been trying to get the tolls removed from the Turnpike since I was sworn in."

Mihos's plan would have the state sell the leases to the 11 service plazas, and use the money to pay off the Turnpike's debt. The debt-free road would then be turned over to the state Highway Department, the tollbooths would be removed, and the road maintained like other toll-free roads under the Highway Department's purview.

Automobile drivers now pay a toll of $3.60 to travel from Weston to the New York border.

A spokeswoman for Governor Mitt Romney, who has argued for the elimination of the Turnpike Authority, said Mihos "should be applauded" for his toll-abolition proposal. The other two members of the Turnpike Authority board, John Moscardelli and Richard Anderson, did not return calls yesterday.

But Sean O'Neill, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, said while getting rid of the tolls is up to the Turnpike Authority, eliminating the authority would require action by the Legislature, which created the Turnpike Authority in the 1950s. Amorello earns $205,000 annually as chairman and board member, while the four members earn $25,000 per year.

Amorello, a former state senator from Grafton who was appointed chairman last year, believes Mihos's plan "is a step in the right direction," O'Neill said, adding that the financial impact of the proposal should be examined more closely.

"The eventual elimination of the tolls has always been part of the plan," O'Neill said.

But O'Neill said even if the tolls were removed, the Turnpike Authority would still have an important role to play, overseeing the Big Dig.

Debate over Massachusetts Turnpike tolls is not a new issue.

Toll opponents have attempted by statewide referendum to repeal the Turnpike tolls, but to no avail. Governor William Weld eliminated the West Newton tolls in 1996, and removed toll increases west of Springfield to the New York border. Both of those changes are still in effect.

Last year, Mihos, Levy, and Amorello supported a proposal to get rid of the tolls, O'Neill said, but the plan failed amid concern about how the toll elimination would affect the Turnpike's finances.

Talk about ending tolls, like voicing support for lower taxes, has often provided politicians with an easy opportunity to boost their popularity. Weld was criticized for using the toll issue to aid his 1996 US Senate campaign against John Kerry.

But Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed watchdog group, said it makes sense for drivers to pay tolls for the highways they use. Abolishing tollbooths without finding another way to pay for the Turnpike's upkeep simply means the state would need to find another funding source, he said.

In effect, taxpayers statewide would be asked to subsidize truck drivers and others who use the Turnpike, he said. "There's no free lunch. If you eliminate them in one place, someone else has to pay," Widmer said.

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