The debate over how much to tax Massachusetts motorists shifted into overdrive yesterday when House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, speaking against the governor's approach of targeting turnpike and tunnel drivers with higher tolls, said he will push instead for a gas tax increase.
DiMasi did not say what size hike he envisions to the 23.5-cent-per-gallon tax, which has not been substantially increased since 1991.
But the speaker made it clear that he was responding to an outcry from angry western and northern suburban motorists, who would be hit by a doubling in some Massachusetts Turnpike and tunnel tolls under a Turnpike Authority plan that won preliminary approval last week.
"Given the excessive proposal now on the table for doubling some tolls, one that will cost drivers in certain areas hundreds of dollars more each year just to get to work, I believe we must seriously consider alternatives like a gas tax increase," DiMasi said.
DiMasi's advocacy for the tax hike will put the highly controversial issue at the top of the agenda as lawmakers arrive for their new session in seven weeks. And it will reshape the battle over the large toll increases the Turnpike Authority wants to have in place by March. Adding to the issue's potential volatility, the timing of the speaker's proposal could coincide with a potentially deep economic recession.
The move was a startling about-face for the speaker. Just 10 days ago his spokesman said that DiMasi was opposed to any broad-based tax increases to help solve the state's financial problems, including how to pay for billions in unmet highway and bridge costs, as well as huge Big Dig debts.
Pressure now falls squarely on Governor Deval Patrick to take a clearer stance on a proposal that, while not rejecting it outright, he has been loath to embrace. The governor remained noncommittal yesterday. His spokesman sought to highlight past administrations as being responsible for the state's chronic transportation funding shortages.
"It is not something he is hostile to, but he believes it is a tough time to be talking about any broad-based tax increases," said Patrick's press secretary, Kyle Sullivan. "The governor looks forward to talking with the speaker and other legislators to discuss their proposals to deal with this transportation funding challenge that we have inherited."
Patrick has received widespread criticism for the plan to raise tolls by the authority, which he controls. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston added his voice to those objecting yesterday. "Toll increases should not be implemented until there is a comprehensive plan developed that takes into account impacts on traffic, congestion, public safety, and public transit ridership," Menino wrote in a letter to the governor.
When they return in January, lawmakers will have to work fast to, as DiMasi hopes, fend off new toll hikes, which are scheduled for a final vote by Turnpike Authority directors Jan. 15.
The Commonwealth's 23.5-cent gas tax puts it slightly below the national average of 26 cents. The state ranks 26th overall, far behind states like California and New York, which have gas taxes that are twice as large.
Western suburban lawmakers who have been pushing for a gas tax increase instead of a toll hike were jubilant yesterday.
"I am thrilled," said state Representative David P. Linsky, a Democrat from Natick and a leader in the fight for a gas tax hike to ease or eliminate tolls. "He is stepping out as a statewide leader, putting forth what is obviously in the state's best interest, which is a fair and equitable financing plan for the Big Dig, rather than one that unfairly hits commuters from the north and west."
The Legislature has not increased the gas tax since 1991, other than adding a special 2.5-cent underground storage fee. Transportation and budget analysts and a special task force convened to assess the state's future needs have called for increases in the tax as the fairest way to pay.
But DiMasi's initiative is certain to face strong objections from Republicans and antitax leaders. The plan could also create rancor by pitting legislators from different regions against one another.
Barbara Anderson, executive director Citizens for Limited Taxation, called DiMasi's sudden switch part of an elaborate Beacon Hill ruse to hoodwink taxpayers, who just two weeks ago rejected a ballot question to eliminate the income tax.
"That is the way the game is played," Anderson said. "First you come in with huge toll increases, and after everyone gets all upset, they do what they plan to do in the first place, and that is to raise the gas tax. Then everyone says thank heaven, thanks Sal DiMasi, I am just a dumb Massachusetts voter who falls for these sucker-traps every time."
A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect the governor to get behind a gas tax eventually.
"If you're not saying no, what does it mean in Beacon Hill speak?" said Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican who met last week with Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen and Turnpike Authority director Alan LeBovidge.
"They will be looking for a gas tax, and it will be sold to the public as a way to save public transportation in the Commonwealth," Hedlund said. "You bet your bottom dollar it will be put forward."
Western Massachusetts lawmakers pushing for toll freezes and gas tax increases are finding allies among lawmakers from the North Shore, where the anger over the prospect of toll hikes is palpable.
"I have been around long enough to see a lot of administrations try to tackle the costs of our transportation infrastructure," Senate majority leader Frederick E. Berry, a Peabody Democrat, said in a statement.
"It is disappointing that this administration, too, took the easy route out and chose to go after the low-lying fruit, instead of stepping up to truly lead," he said.
The toll hikes that would take effect as early as March are designed to raise $90 million to $100 million a year, enough to pay off debt and significant long-term maintenance on roads, tunnels, and bridges, which have been neglected in recent years.
The turnpike board member who advocates for western suburban commuters and was the only member of the authority to vote against last week's preliminary approval praised DiMasi's proposal.
"The toll payers should be thrilled," said the member, Mary Connaughton, a Framingham resident. "The speaker teed up the ball. It's up to Patrick to take a swing at it and do the right thing."
According to Connaughton, an increase of 9 cents a gallon would allow for the elimination of all tolls. She said it would cost the average driver, who drives 15,000 miles a year and gets 20 miles per gallon, only about $68 a year.
The success of DiMasi's effort will depend on how quickly the Legislature is able to act, whether the new tax money is targeted to pay off turnpike debt, and how flexible the Turnpike Authority can be in paying off its share of Big Dig-related debts.
Also in play is another potentially complex move, Patrick's plan to eliminate the Turnpike Authority and transfer its responsibilities to MassPort.
Noah Bierman and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.