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Patrick considers raising gas tax

Calls it 'serious alternative' to increasing tolls

Governor Deval Patrick said that any gas tax hike should be high enough to avoid future sharp increases. Governor Deval Patrick said that any gas tax hike should be high enough to avoid future sharp increases.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that raising the gas tax could be a "serious alternative" to increasing tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike and Boston Harbor Tunnels, marking another step in the governor's developing views on the topic.

"I hate the proposed toll increase, like everybody else," Patrick wrote during an online chat on boston.com, where he fielded six questions from the public. ". . .The gas tax could be a serious alternative."

Several weeks ago, Patrick had deflected any suggestion of a gas tax increase.

"The whole question of gas taxes versus toll increases is not quite where the choice is right now," Patrick said at a Nov. 20 press conference. "It will take time to have a comprehensive debate about the gas tax."

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, who in November endorsed a gas tax increase instead of raising tolls, said yesterday, "Hopefully we're riding in the same car now."

Meanwhile, state lawmakers began girding yesterday for drastic budget cuts that could be announced as soon as this week.

Patrick said he had not arrived at a figure for local aid cuts, but DiMasi said yesterday that he "wouldn't be surprised" if it reached $500 million.

The state originally expected to provide $5.3 billion in local aid, and cuts that come in the middle of the fiscal year, when budgets have already been set, would force municipal officials to begin slashing services immediately and possibly start laying off teachers and police officers.

DiMasi said he expects House lawmakers will vote tomorrow to give Patrick expanded budget-cutting powers that would allow him to make local aid cuts. The Senate is also planning to take up the issue tomorrow.

Administration officials could make an announcement as early as today of updated revenue estimates, which would trigger additional cuts. The administration would have 15 days to make the cuts.

Patrick, who initially made comments about the gas taxes during an online chat with readers on boston.com, reiterated the comments yesterday afternoon to reporters in a State House hallway but also maintained that his position had not changed on the issue.

"If the gas tax has a role in making that all work, and we get consensus in the building, then we may be there," he said. "But we'll have to see."

Patrick said that any increase in the gas tax should be high enough to not only avoid the latest round of toll hikes but to remove toll booths completely, or avoid future sharp increases.

He also said there should be provisions that the money not be used for anything but transportation, and that a gas tax hike be linked to overall transportation reform, including creating a single umbrella transportation agency.

James A. Aloisi Jr., who began as Patrick's transportation secretary yesterday, said his forthcoming plan to reorganize the state's transportation system will have to include a new revenue source.

"What that approach is, we all have to be open-minded about it," he said. "I don't want to make a prediction. These are conversations we will have over the next several weeks or months."

The Turnpike Authority board gave preliminary approval to toll increases in November that would double cash tolls to $7 at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels and raise tolls at the Weston and Allston-Brighton booths to $2, from $1.25. The board is scheduled to take a final vote on the toll increases Jan. 22.

But Aloisi has said he would reevaluate the toll proposal before a scheduled final vote next week.

Yesterday, when asked if he was prepared to approve the increase, reschedule the vote, or reduce the level of increase, he said, "Stay tuned."

The current gas tax in Massachusetts is 23.5 cents per gallon, which has not been substantially increased since 1991.

During the online chat, Patrick was also asked whether, given the current budget gap of up to $1 billion, he regrets not taking a job in President-elect Barack Obama's administration.

"No," Patrick wrote. "I don't want to go to D.C. with my pal."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

Governor Deval Patrick said any gas tax hike should be high enough to avoid future sharp increases.

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