REVERE - The state is considering installing tolls on Interstate 93, a top transportation official told lawmakers yesterday, but Governor Deval Patrick's chief aide released a statement later distancing the governor from the idea.
"We are taking a look at it," Transportation Undersecretary Jeffrey Mullan told lawmakers during a budget hearing.
Patrick's chief of staff, Doug Rubin, quickly disavowed Mullan's remarks.
"The statement today before the legislative committee is not consistent with the administration's position," Rubin said in a written statement. "Governor Patrick firmly believes that we must look for reforms and efficiencies throughout our transportation system before we ask toll payers to pay more.
"He has been clear that adding tolls throughout I-93 is not an option the administration is prepared to consider at this point. He has directed [Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen] to continue to review the system and find ways to achieve savings and efficiencies first before the administration seriously considers any revenue enhancement options."
Eased federal restrictions on electronic toll collection could encourage tolls on the currently free north-south highway, Mullan said, in the firmest public indication from Patrick aides that the administration could look to use new tolls to close a severe transportation budget gap. The federal government wants to move toward user-based funding for roadways, officials said.
"It's good to hear that we're starting to open our horizons," said House Ways and Means chairman, Robert DeLeo, Democrat of Winthrop, smiling and throwing his arm around Senator Steven Baddour's shoulder in the A.C. Whelan School auditorium, as transportation officials laid out budget proposals. "I think the chairman and I are in agreement on that."
Baddour, the Transportation Committee cochairman, has repeatedly said cost-cutting should come before new revenues. He said that motorists could easily dodge tolls on I-93 and that federal law might prohibit the tolls.
"They don't make any sense there," he said after the hearing. "There's too many ways around them. Why would you put a toll up if people are just going to go around that?"
Baddour, Democrat of Methuen, represents a district where drivers are accustomed to toll-free drives to and from southern destinations.
DeLeo later praised Representative David Linsky, the Natick Democrat and frequent critic of Massachusetts Turnpike tolls that hit drivers traveling east and west from Boston the hardest, for "his outstanding leadership on this toll issue."
Tolls rose Jan. 1, from $1 to $1.25 at the Allston-Brighton and Route 128 interchanges, and from $3 to $3.50 at the two harbor tunnels.
Cohen has told lawmakers that toll increases could result if the governor's plan to streamline the transportation bureaucracy doesn't clear the Legislature this year. Cohen has said he expects the plan to be rolled out by the end of February.
Baddour said yesterday that the administration should work harder to solicit legislators' input before filing its restructuring proposals.