Holmes: Inequity on Mass. Pike

Rick Holmes

While most of us were out cruising the highways to summer vacation spots, something else was coming down the Pike: higher tolls.

Some of the events leading toward higher tolls made big headlines. Even those vacationing out of state couldn't miss the bridge collapse in Minnesota that sent bridge inspectors scurrying across the country. Not surprisingly, some of them found a bunch of Massachusetts bridges of similar design overdue for repairs, including the Longfellow Bridge, which connects Cambridge to Boston.

Who do you suppose is going to pay for those repairs?

Some of the events received passing notice in the Boston press. In August, two Turnpike Authority board members said out loud something state officials have known for a long time: The Turnpike toll increases scheduled for next January - an additional quarter at the Weston and Allston toll plazas - won't be enough to cover the Big Dig bond payments that will come due.

The papers also noted the changing of the guard at the Turnpike Authority. Board Chairman John Cogliano's term expired and he was replaced by Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen. Then another member resigned and was replaced by Gov. Deval Patrick, giving his appointees three of the five seats. Patrick now controls the Turnpike, much earlier than most had anticipated.

I like our governor, but I have to tell you he's no friend to Mass. Pike tollpayers. I've tried over and over again to get him to commit to reducing tolls. No dice. I've tried to get him to acknowledge that there is an inequity in having Pike tollpayers pay for the Big Dig while those who actually use the tunnels get a free ride. At best, he'll concede there is a perceived inequity he often hears in MetroWest.

The last time Patrick came by our Framingham office, I posed a hypothetical: If the Longfellow Bridge needed repairs, wouldn't it be wrong to put a toll on the Sagamore Bridge to pay for them? He dodged, refusing to acknowledge any principle that user fees should be paid by those who actually use the road they are being spent on.

This was clearly a man determined to keep all his toll-raising options open.

Some of the events leading toward higher tolls never made the Boston papers. In May, Cohen engineered the adoption by the Pike Board - without advance notice or meaningful debate - of an agreement that the Pike, not the state, would be responsible for any future Big Dig cost overruns. In June, the Pike agreed to begin investing in technology for "open road tolling," which would allow it to collect tolls without drivers even slowing down - and to collect tolls on roads with no tollbooths.

One story was lost entirely over the Labor Day weekend: Bloomberg reported that two Wall Street investment firms will exercise options on some complicated derivative instruments covering $800 million in Big Dig debt. The agreements, called "swaptions," were negotiated under Matt Amorello's reign, and were expected to be a good deal as long as interest rates stayed low.

Now, like an overextended homeowner with an adjustable rate mortgage, the Pike may soon be looking at sharply higher debt payments. And who gets the bill? The tollpayers.

And that's the problem. Just about everybody hates the Turnpike Authority, which for generations has been painted as a patronage trough, better at overpaying the politically connected than maintaining roads or overseeing the Big Dig. It's an easy target.

But the Turnpike Authority is just one of many players who bear responsibility for Big Dig cost overruns and the deterioration of the state's roads and bridges. Big Dig contractors share the blame. So do at least four governors and the members of the state Legislature. Indirectly, responsibility rests with the voters who elected the officials who made bad decisions or were asleep at the switch.

But there's one group that bears no responsibility for those mistakes: the people who drive on the Mass. Turnpike. We don't elect the Turnpike Authority board. Why should we pay for their mistakes?

Two more shoes will soon drop on this road to higher tolls. On Sept. 17, Cohen will present the Pike Authority board with his recommendations for the January toll increases. Public hearings will follow - including, I hope, one in MetroWest - but this will be Deval Patrick's plan and it will be approved by Patrick's board.

The second shoe will be the long-awaited recommendations of the Transportation Study Commission, which last spring pronounced the state was $19 billion short of what it needed to repair and maintain its roads and bridges. Its report, due any day now, will call for increased gas taxes, cuts in the over-generous salaries and perks given Pike and MBTA employees, and tolls, tolls, tolls.

The commission will talk about new tolls on I-93, about bringing back the Pike tolls west of Westfield and rebuilding the Newton tollbooths Bill Weld demolished in a campaign stunt in 1996. It is also likely to embrace "congestion tolling," an insidious policy fad that gained traction this summer when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed charging $8 for anyone driving into Manhattan south of 86th Street.

The Bush administration likes congestion tolls, as does the conservative Pioneer Institute. Boston liberals like the idea of punishing wealthy suburbanites in gas-guzzling SUVs. It satisfies conservatives' fondness for financial incentives and liberals' nanny-state urge to regulate individual behavior.

Congestion pricing even makes sense, if all you wanted to do is reduce congestion and if it was designed to be revenue-neutral, with tolls cut during off-peak hours as well as raised during rush hour. If the point is to manage demand, a consistent policy would also raise MBTA fares during peak times and reduce them when trains run mostly empty.

It makes sense, that is, if fairness isn't a consideration. If fairness counts, how can you justify charging a first-shift worker more to drive to work than someone on the third shift? Rewarding those who have the flexibility to adjust their commuting times - white-collar professionals, for the most part - is the same as punishing those whose bosses require them to be at work by 9.

This scheme becomes even less fair if it isn't revenue-neutral. If what the state is really trying to do is come up with $19 billion to repair bridges and repave highways from Pittsfield to Provincetown, why should the largest part of the burden fall on those who happen to commute into Boston during certain hours?

And it becomes outrageously unfair if the burden falls only on those who use certain roads. If the point is to reduce congestion in Boston, the state had better put tolls on the Longfellow and Mass. Ave. bridges from Cambridge. It had better find a way to make the guy who commutes from Milton - that would be you, Governor - pay as much as the worker who drives in from Natick.

Now for the reality check: How do you think those who drive on I-93 will react to the idea of putting tolls on a road that is already free? Will the people on the South Shore accept new tolls? How about the people who get to Boston through Cambridge and Somerville?

The MetroWest legislative delegation is fiercely committed to stopping Pike toll increases, but they are always outnumbered by legislators whose constituents don't use the Pike every day. Try to make everyone pay tolls and the Legislature will balk.

When that happens, who'll be left to pay for the Big Dig cost overruns? Who will be stuck with the bill for fixing the Longfellow Bridge and all the other crumbling roadways? The Mass. Pike tollpayer.

Hold on to your wallets, MetroWest.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.