Toll delay buys time for transportation solution, Aloisi says

Dan Mac Alpine

Transportation Secretary James Aloisi said at a panel discussion in Beverly on Friday that the challenge of facing the state’s highway and mass transit debt is “jaw-droppingly large.”

The state faces a billion-dollar transportation debt and maintenance deficit because much of the state’s toll, T fare and gas-tax revenue went to support the Big Dig over the past decade.

Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo announced Thursday an agreement to delay any Mass Pike toll hikes, giving the Legislature and Patrick time to develop a comprehensive plan to address the state’s transportation deficit.

Patrick had wanted a decision on the issue by March 30 to avoid toll hikes on the Mass Pike, and now Aloisi said the final deadline to address the issue will be June 3.

That’s when the MBTA must stop drawing on its $54 million reserve, which is financing the toll-hike delay.

“I’m going to keep repeating that date until I’m blue in the face,” said Aloisi, who said he has spoken to bond-financing companies and didn’t expect the delay to hurt the Mass Pike’s bond rating.

A drop in the T’s bond rating would increase interest rates on the T’s debt.

Aloisi made the comments after taping a show at the BevCam local cable access studios Friday. Rep. Mary Grant, D-Beverly, organized the panel discussion, and Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon and Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke also participated.

The panelists agreed the decision to put off toll hikes was more than simply delaying a difficult choice. Instead, they said it represented “commitment to a comprehensive solution” to the transportation debt.

“You can see the glass as half full or half empty on this,” Aloisi said. “I see it as half full.”

“We have an agreement to not push the button on March 30,” Grant said. “If we had pushed that button, people would have been so angry, it would have been very difficult to reach any solution on this issue.”

Reaching that consensus will juggle several major issues, including:

- The total debt package, which will depend on exactly what infrastructure and maintenance projects the state decides to address.

- MBTA fare hikes and service levels.

- Toll hikes on the Mass Pike, the Tobin Bridge and the Boston tunnels.

- A hike in the gas tax.

Grant noted that if the state did every project each legislator wanted done in their district, it would take a 73-cent increase in the gas tax to cover it.

“No one is even thinking that,” said Aloisi, saying the figure merely demonstrated the choices the Legislature and the governor must make.

“Do we want to keep the T affordable? Do we want to keep the gas tax down? Do we want to pay higher tolls? Do we want to maintain T service or cut it back? These are all choices we have to make,” said Aloisi.

The exact price tag will depend on the negotiations among the Patrick administration, the House and the Senate.

However, a special state commission has reported the debt at some $2.2 billion from the Big Dig, an annual deficit of $1 billion in annual highway and road maintenance and a $165 million annual operating debt at the MBTA.

Grant said she hadn’t seen any move to raise either the income tax or the sales tax to help address the transportation debt, but said any tax increase would “have to be dedicated” to address the specific issues.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with the most fair way to raise money,” said Grant.

Beverly Citizen