Tropical Storm Irene took toll in lost transportation revenue

By David Abel
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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Tropical Storm Irene cost the state in many ways - destroyed homes and businesses, downed trees and power lines, and the life of at least one man. It also cost Massachusetts hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

The decision by the state Department of Transportation to close all its toll booths and the MBTA to halt train and bus service deprived the cash-strapped agencies of much-needed income.

Transportation officials said that over the previous six Sundays the state collected between nearly $600,000 and $800,000 in tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels.

Given the reduced traffic because of the foul weather last Sunday, they estimate the state would have earned $196,731 had they kept the toll booths open.

Adam Hurtubise, a spokesman for the transportation agency, said the state closed the tolls because it was “a safety issue’’ for employees and drivers.

He said it would not have been fair to close the cash booths while keeping the electronic tolls open.

“If you have to waive tolls, you waive them across the board,’’ he said.

MBTA officials said that on the Sunday before the storm, 322,708 people either bought tickets or used CharlieCards to ride the trains and buses. Because nearly half of the users hold prepaid monthly or weekly passes, the T typically generates about $242,000 in revenue on Sundays.

T officials, however, said they would have expected only a fraction of those riders would have used the system last Sunday had it remained open all day.

The T did open for 2 1/2 hours early in the morning, after hospital officials complained, allowing about 6,700 people to use the system.

The MBTA has a maintenance backlog of about $3 billion and owes billions more in long-term debt.

In a telephone interview, T General Manager Richard A. Davey, who becomes the state’s secretary of transportation tomorrow, said safety was more of a concern than the loss in revenue. He also said the loss was less than the total of lost revenue, because of savings from fuel not used and wages not paid.

“I think suspending service was the right decision,’’ Davey said. “Given the wind forecasts, I became increasingly concerned about the safety of our customers and employees. We have 8,000 bus stops, and the vast majority are uncovered. That could have created an extraordinarily dangerous situation.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him @davabel