As toll hikes loom, Pike board wants more time to study options

Lindsey Parietti

Unable to pin down the amount of cash influx needed to maintain the Turnpike and pay for debt, the Turnpike Authority Board delayed a long-awaited vote on how much and where a scheduled January 2008 toll hike will affect drivers.

A perplexed board, led by Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen, considered several toll-increase scenarios for the Boston tunnels and the Pike extension and Allston-Brighton exits.

The board also briefly discussed eliminating the Fast Lane Discount Program.

Newcomer Michael Angellini, who was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick last month, and Romney appointee Mary Connaughton, of Framingham, estimated a $113 million and $73 million need, respectively, prompting the board to admit it was not prepared to vote.

``I wasn't buying it. I want more information,'' Connaughton said of the figures presented by authority staff. ``Being a former auditor I look at things before going into something - I don't take numbers at face value.''

Recent Patrick appointee Thomas Stephens remained mostly silent throughout the meeting, but supported Connaughton's push to cut unnecessary expenditures before raising tolls.

Board members agreed to try to eliminate what Stephens called ``low-hanging fruit" - such as a deal with the city of Boston that allows North End patrons to park in a downtown garage for $1 per hour - one of the few cuts that could be made without legislative approval.

``I don't think it's fair to ask tollpayers to dig deeper into their pockets when programs like this still exist,'' said Connaughton, who estimated ending the garage discount would save the authority between $1 million and $3 million.

Three sentences of the authority's 18-slide presentation were devoted to decreasing expenses: streamline costs, cut staff, and shift payment for state police services to the state.

Before postponing the vote until Oct. 4, the board charged Acting Executive Director Mary Jane O'Meara with filling in the details and froze hiring of non-essential personnel.

At the Oct. 4 meeting Connaughton will present her plan to push toll increases on commercial drivers, with large trucks shouldering most of the burden.

``The commuter has to come before the commercial driver. That is a basic flaw in the way the authority and the whole Big Dig debt is structured,'' said Connaughton, who like local lawmakers, believes MetroWest commuters are unfairly paying for the Central Artery Project.

But Cohen worried that the board was overlooking business interests.

``I want to be careful about where the wheel is squeaking and make sure that at the end of the day that the toll policy that we set is balanced in terms of minimizing the inequity on the part of the toll payers but also minimizing the burden on commerce,'' he said. ``It's not free money - it will affect somebody. It will affect the price people pay for goods. It will affect the business community.''

If the board approves a toll plan at its next meeting, it will hold four public hearings, with one likely in Framingham, before the final vote.

MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News staff writer Lindsey Parietti can be reached at lpariett@cnc.com.