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Toll weary

With latest increase set for January, many question fairness of Pike users paying so much to support state roads

Julia Goring doesn't like paying tolls, and is willing to go further than most to avoid them.

Even though her Framingham home is less than a mile from the Massachusetts Turnpike, she avoids the highway as she drives to her job as a human resources director in Boston's Back Bay, taking congested Route 9 instead. Braving bumper-to-bumper traffic past the malls and furniture stores of Natick, she cuts through bustling Wellesley Center on Route 16 and into West Newton, where she pulls her car into the driveway of her father's house.

She finally gets on the Pike at Exit 16 - as a passenger. Her father pays the toll, as dads are wont to do for daughters who grow up to become carpool partners.

All told, Goring's complex commute saves her as much as $900 annually in tolls. In January, that amount will increase to $1,150, thanks to toll increases approved Thursday by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board.

Under the new toll structure, typical commuters living outside of Route 128 would pay $1.25 each time they use the Weston (Exit 15) and Allston-Brighton (Exit 18) toll booths. Between the gas tax and the tolls, drivers from the western suburbs would pay more than nine times as much for their commutes than those from Boston's northwest suburbs and on the South Shore, which do not have tolls on their major highways into the city. The board rejected a second proposed increase that would have raised the Allston-Brighton and Weston tolls to $1.75, adding another $500 to a yearly commute from Framingham.

The issue of the toll increases is not necessarily dead, however. The hikes still face a public hearing process and a final board vote, and board member Mary Connaughton - who represents the interests of the western suburbs - has said she will urge her colleagues to reconsider Thursday's vote, instead increasing tolls only in the Boston Harbor tunnels.

Even though the increase as voted is smaller than it could have been, it has many commuters, local officials, politicians - and even Goring - questioning whether the cost of the increasingly expensive roadway is still worthwhile.

"If they raise the tolls again, that's it," she said. "For $1.75" from West Newton, "I'll be on the train."

As much as the toll increase has angered commuters and officials along the turnpike corridor, it may also come with a silver lining: renewed debate about the fairness of making a relatively small group of commuters pay an outsized portion of the state's transportation infrastructure. Part of that debate is a renewed interest in measures once considered politically radioactive, such as raising the state gasoline tax or installing a futuristic electronic monitoring system that would charge all drivers by the mile for using any of the major highways into Boston.

"I think there is a wide recognition that something has to happen," said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer, who was a member of a state transportation funding panel that recently recommended an increase in the gas tax. "We can't walk away from this any longer."

Drivers in Massachusetts pay directly for using the state's roadways in two ways: tolls and the state gas tax. But while the gas tax is spread across residents statewide, the burden of tolls is concentrated mostly on drivers who use the Mass. Pike and a few bridges and tunnels.

Between the gas tax and tolls, the average driver who lives west of Route 128 and commutes daily into Boston now pays approximately $1,035 per year in taxes and tolls. That is six times the amount paid by drivers who use the northern stretch of Interstate 93 or the Southeast Expressway (and who, like all state residents, pay an average of $135 in gas taxes each year) - and nearly twice as much as North Shore commuters who use the Tobin Bridge or the harbor tunnels, which only collect tolls one way.

With the toll increase, turnpike commuters from Framingham next year will pay an average of nearly $1,300 each in tolls and gas taxes.

"The burden is unfair," Ashland Town Administrator John Petrin said last week. "If you are on the South Shore . . . you probably don't even know what a transponder is," referring to the Fast Lane system's automatic toll-collecting device. "But if I'm going to a Red Sox game, what choice do I have but to take the Pike? The back roads are ridiculous."

Local officials are also concerned that increased tolls will dump more traffic onto local streets at exits in Natick, Framingham, West Newton, and Newton Corner, as commuters like Goring try to avoid the tolls. Last year, more than 5 million cars got off the turnpike at Exit 12 in Framingham, and more than 8 million got off at Exit 13 in Natick. Millions of cars also left the turnpike in West Newton and Newton Corner - where local officials are particularly concerned because there are no toll plazas there - but turnpike officials say they have no exact traffic counts because they no longer collect tolls there.

In the 1980s, when using the Pike meant digging some change out of the seat cushions and throwing it into a bin at the toll booth, western suburbanites loved their wide roadway and smooth traffic. Over the last few decades, however, residential development between Route 128 and Interstate 495 has made gridlock as common on Interstate 90 (the Pike's federal highway designation) as it is on the state's other highways.

"The traffic now is incredible, so it's not like you're getting anything for your money," said state Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat. "I drive to Boston every day on the Pike. It's a pain."

Pike commuters have also been caught in a political and economic squeeze. In the late 1990s, the Turnpike Authority took on the Big Dig's $1.4 billion in outstanding loans and restructured its debt in a way that virtually guaranteed a toll increase every six years. At the same time, Widmer said, Big Dig planners were making Pollyanna predictions of the maintenance costs of the huge project.

"All along they underestimated what it would take to maintain this engineering marvel," he said. "You can't build a $15 billion marvel and maintain it on the cheap."

Politicians, meanwhile, found that while turnpike, bridge, and tunnel toll increases were generally palatable to the public, other measures - like putting toll plazas on other highways or increasing the gas tax - threatened to turn them into political road kill.

As a result, the Turnpike Authority, which relies on tolls for 78 percent of its revenue, is now facing a $26 million increase in debt payments next year, in addition to paying a $25 million bill for deferred maintenance and another $12 million to subsidize Fast Lane discounts. Turnpike staff members said last month said that the authority needs to raise an extra $100 million a year to cover debts, pay employees, and repair infrastructure, but the toll increase is expected to raise only $25 million.

At last week's turnpike board meeting, members said they hoped that Governor Deval Patrick's widely anticipated plan to reorganize state transportation funding would ease some of the authority's financial burden. Widmer added that transportation funding reform could also result in wider support in the Legislature for a gas tax increase if Patrick links the two and earmarks the new funds for road and infrastructure repair.

The Transportation Finance Commission, the panel that Widmer was on, last month recommended an 11.5-cent increase in the gas tax, saying it would raise as much as $18 billion over the next 20 years while only increasing the average family's burden by $66 per year. The current gas tax rate, 23.5 cents per gallon, hasn't been increased since 1990.

Other measures recommended by the commission include that nascent technology to read vehicle registration plates on the fly and automatically charge users 5 cents per mile for driving on any of the state's major highways. Some states, like Oregon and Colorado, are already testing versions of the technology, but it has met with resistance from some civil libertarians and is as much as a decade away from becoming reality, Widmer said.

Carrie Russell, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said she believes that incidents like the Minneapolis bridge collapse and last year's fatal Ted Williams Tunnel ceiling collapse have convinced most people in the state that "everyone needs to chip in.

"When you compare a gas tax to a large toll increase on a single roadway, it's a no-brainer."

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