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Cape agency floats idea of bridge tolls

Fee would apply to nonresidents for road repairs

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 28, 2009
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A planning agency on Cape Cod has proposed requiring that nonresidents pay a toll to cross the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, as part of an effort to ease traffic and boost revenue for road maintenance.

The idea - one of a number of options offered at a meeting this week of Barnstable commissioners - would be to use high-tech cameras to record the license plate numbers of vehicles, in order to not impede traffic flow, and then send bills to drivers with cars registered off the Cape, said Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, the Barnstable County department that proposed the idea.

Adding tolls on the bridges would have to be approved by the county's commissioners as well as state and local officials.

"This is just a preliminary idea, but in the summer Cape Cod has three times its year-round population, and we need a transportation infrastructure that can support that," Niedzwiecki said. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, but it's an idea that has worked elsewhere."

If the tolls were set at $1, he estimated, the Cape could raise about $10 million to help pay the $42 million of annual costs to maintain roads. He said the tolls could also be set at peak traffic times, to improve overall traffic flow.

County commissioners said they think the proposal is worth studying, but local business officials and regular commuters to Cape Cod questioned it.

"We love having our tourists here, and we benefit from them, but there's a lot of overhead we pay when they're not here," said Sheila Lyons, chairwoman of the three-member board of county commissioners. "This is something to look at for down the road. It's not something I'm adverse to, but it's not something we're going to adopt right away."

If commissioners approve the tolls, Commissioner William Doherty said they would seek a referendum by local voters before requesting state and federal approval, which could take years.

"We can't afford not to look at this," Doherty said. "We need to do something."

He blamed the deterioration of local roads on the surge of the summertime population.

"The impact on our roads is not by the 230,000 people who live here full time; it's because of the 1 million visitors we get in the summer," he said. "We have a situation where 25 percent of the users of the roads are paying for an additional 75 percent of those using them. So, we have to figure out how to get the state's attention."

Business officials contend that the last thing Cape Cod needs in a souring economy is to give tourists a reason not to visit.

"This is a regressive idea," said Deborah Converse, president of the Hyannis Area Chamber of Commerce. "The hospitality industry is the largest employer on the Cape, and for anyone to endanger that revenue - even if it's only a dollar - you have to keep your sense of humor. There are other ways to mitigate the traffic flow, and the answer is not tolls."

Art Kinsman, a spokesman for AAA Southern New England, said the association would not support tolls.

"We vehemently oppose just putting tolls on existing roads already bought and paid for by the taxpayers," he said. "We understand that there has to be revenue-raising measures, but I think it's problematic trying to do it in a piecemeal fashion."

John Paul, manager of traffic safety at AAA Southern New England, said he commutes to the Cape most weekends and worries that the tolls - even those administered by camera - would slow traffic even more on the notoriously backed-up bridges.

"It probably wouldn't deter me from going, but it depends on what they would ultimately charge," he said. "If it slows traffic down, that would definitely have an impact on my decision - and for a lot of other people."

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