Governor Deval Patrick's administration said yesterday it wants to make permanent the Massachusetts Turnpike's Fast Lane discounts, counted on by thousands of suburban commuters on their daily trips to and from Boston.
Facing a bleak financial outlook that includes a $2.1 billion debt, Turnpike Authority staff late last year recommended ending the discount. It saves commuters 25 cents off the $1 toll at the Allston-Brighton toll booths and 50 cents off the $3 tolls at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels, but costs the state $12.2 million a year.
In two months, however, the political and financial equation has changed dramatically.
Lawmakers representing motorists in Boston's western suburbs protested vehemently, arguing that the authority did not have the legal power to scuttle the discount program. This month, Patrick killed a proposal to end all tolls west of Route 128, which would have cost the Turnpike Authority about $114 million a year in lost revenue.
"The administration supports the Fast Lane discount program, and [Transportation Secretary Bernard] Cohen will be working with the turnpike board to construct a long-term solution," Kyle Sullivan, Patrick's spokesman, said yesterday.
Sullivan declined to be more specific. Patrick had previously offered more qualified support for the discount, saying he wanted to make sure it was affordable.
Under pressure from legislators to reject the staff recommendation to end the discount, the Turnpike Authority board voted in December to extend the program for two months. Tomorrow, it is scheduled to extend it at least another month. at its first meeting with Cohen as a board member.
"It's a program that is extremely important to my constituents and is in place as a partial solution to a fundamental unfairness," said state Representative David P. Linsky, a Natick Democrat who has fought against ending the discount. "If the reports are true that the Turnpike Authority is not going to end the Fast Lane discount program, then I am thrilled, because it's a recognition of the correctness of that policy."
Linsky and other supporters of the discount say the authority has relied too much on turnpike toll money to fund the $14.6 billion Big Dig, which benefits commuters north and south of Boston far more than those living west of the city, who are forced to pay the tolls daily.
The Legislature approved the discount in August 2002, partly to make up for a turnpike toll increase earlier that year, and it has been renewed every year since. Linsky and others say they believe the legislation makes the discount permanent, and only lawmakers, not the Turnpike Authority, can end it.
The discount has been funded largely by the proceeds of the $75 million sale of turnpike land in Allston to Harvard University in 2003. About 200,000 drivers used Fast Lane electronic transponders in 2005, most on the turnpike. Between August 2002 and the end of 2005, the Fast Lane discount saved commuters $30 million, officials said.
Turnpike Authority spokesman Jon Carlisle said that the discount is under review "from a legal and financial standpoint" and that there is no plan before the authority's board to fund it permanently.
He said the death of the proposal to remove tolls west of Route 128 is unrelated to giving new life to the Fast Lane discount.
Erik Abell, a spokesman for Cohen, declined to comment.
Turnpike tolls are due to rise next year to generate an additional $40 million to cover costs associated with the Big Dig, so ending the discount would hit some motorists with, in effect, two increases. Although no formal toll-hike proposal has been made, 1997 bond documents said tolls could increase 25 cents at the Allston-Brighton and Route 128 tollbooths and 50 cents at the Boston tunnels in 2008.
Mary Z. Connaughton of Framingham, a board member of the Turnpike Authority, said there are several ways the discounts could be funded, including her proposals to increase tolls at the Boston tunnels and for truck and other commercial license drivers using the turnpike.
She said she also wants to examine whether the Fast Lane discounts could be funded by ending discounts for Boston residents most affected by Big Dig construction. The resident discount program, begun in 1995, gives 18,000 residents -- mostly in East Boston, the North End, and South Boston -- an 87 percent discount on tolls at the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels.
With construction largely complete on the Central Artery project, Connaughton said the discounts, costing the authority an estimated $5 million annually, are no longer necessary. The Legislature, however, would have to end those discounts.
"There's gross inequities here that need to be rectified, and, given the situation we're in now, this is a prime opportunity to look at all of these things," she said.
Peter G. Hill, 50, a chiropractor from Weston who drives into Boston daily, said keeping the Fast Lane discounts will save him hundreds of dollars a year.
"My biggest beef is that MassPike commuters are paying for the lion's share of the Big Dig, and in my opinion they should put toll roads on all the major highways or they should eliminate all the tolls and institute a gas tax," he said. "All the roads in the Commonwealth need upkeep, and the revenue needs to come from somewhere, but not just the tolls."
Mac Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about the Fast Lane toll program incorrectly described a proposal by a Turnpike Authority board member to fund discounts for turnpike tolls. Mary Z. Connaughton says she wants to examine raising money by reducing the toll discount from 87 percent to 67 percent at the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels for Boston residents most affected by Big Dig construction.)