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Lawmakers debate toll, gas hikes

Hearings elicit calls for solution other than raising road, tunnel rates

By Noah Bierman and Julia Rappaport
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2008
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Nearly everyone who spoke at the first legislative hearings on toll hikes and gas taxes yesterday said the state needs a "comprehensive" solution to the funding crisis crippling the Massachusetts Turnpike, the MBTA, and the rest of the state's transportation system.

But the definition of "comprehensive" depended very much on who was speaking.

"I guarantee you not everyone will like what a comprehensive plan is," Representative Mary E. Grant of Beverly said at one hearing yesterday morning. "But everybody needs to walk away with something."

Most who spoke at the hearings opposed the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's proposed toll hikes, which would add hundreds of dollars per year to the cost of many commutes.

To underscore the anger, an activist dressed as a chicken showed up at the morning hearing on Beacon Hill to protest Governor Deval Patrick's decision not to meet with an anti-toll group called Stop the Pike Hike.

Beyond that, ideas flowed freely, although the Boston hearing was technically restricted to a bill freezing tolls at current levels.

Legislators from the western suburbs and North Shore, who would be hit hardest by the toll increases, mostly favored taking down tolls and replacing them with a gas tax geared toward resolving the turnpike's problems. Environmental groups suggested raising the gas tax by as much as 30 cents, to take care of all the needs of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as well.

Some political leaders suggested open road tolling or tolled express lanes along Interstate 93, a proposal considered a deal-killer to others.

Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who cochairs the Transportation Committee, said his Western Massachusetts constituents are fine with paying tolls, but would resent a gas tax increase. Still, Wagner has called the current toll hike proposal excessive.

Commuters who attended a separate hearing in Framingham last night said they are tired of paying higher tolls, especially for the Big Dig.

David Hutchinson of Framingham moved the crowd to cheers when he called for an end to tolls.

"We have paid and paid," he shouted into the microphone. "There's no more! There's no more in this till!"

Peter Chisholm, director of public relations for Framingham State College, said the toll increase would put pressure on commuting students. He said the college has 4,500 commuting students and estimated that up to 2,000 use the turnpike daily.

"That would mean an extra $7.50 a week for the average student," he said.

Arguments over how much and how quickly tolls need to go up continue. Some legislators said the Turnpike Authority's dismal financial outlook may be improving a bit, as officials work to renegotiate some of the agency's most onerous financial deals, complex credit transactions known as swaptions, that have left the authority vulnerable to paying hundreds of millions of dollars to banks.

But Alan LeBovidge, turnpike executive director, cautioned Monday that regardless of how those deals turn out, the authority would need to raise tolls quickly to cover debt and maintenance costs without letting its bond rating slip to junk status.

Whatever happens on the proposed toll hike, which would double rates to $7 at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels, is sure to influence the Legislature's transportation debate.

Many legislators yesterday said they would not support a higher gas tax or other proposed transportation fixes on top of a toll increase.

Wagner summarized that sentiment, warning that the state will not "get multiple bites of the apple" and would need to take care of everything, including the MBTA's deficit problems, at one time.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, the headliner at the morning hearing, joined the chorus, reiterating his opposition to the toll hike and his support for a higher gas tax.

He warned that higher tolls would divert an estimated 200,000 more vehicles to local roads, hampering police and firefighters, hurting city businesses, and damaging the environment.

Menino, who met with Patrick on Tuesday on transportation issues, also took aim at the administration's proposal to put the Massachusetts Port Authority in charge of the Big Dig and the eastern portion of the turnpike.

"You just can't say to Massport, who's basically been taking care of airports, to take over highways," he said after his testimony. "We have to think about how we do it, and I don't think that plan is well thought out."

Senator Steven A. Baddour, the other cochairman of the Transportation Committee, insisted there was more unity than dissension among the competing ideas to fix the transportation system.

He has opposed the toll increases and a higher gas tax and suggested that a deal to lease the turnpike to a private company is a viable alternative.

"I think everyone understands the urgency," he said in an interview after the hearing. "And if we're able to put together a plan that recognizes the concerns that people are raising, I think we can do it."

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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