BOSTON Drivers west of Springfield on the Massachusetts Turnpike could soon face a higher bill for their travels, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is moving forward with a plan to reinstate the last six tolls before the New York border.
“We’re hopeful that they’re going to be added. We don’t know 100 percent for sure, but we’ve proposed it as part of our budget going forward, it’s been discussed with the state Legislature, and we’re confident we’ll be able to reinstate the tolls 1-6, which were taken out a number of years ago,” MassDOT Chief Financial Officer Dana Levenson told the News Service Tuesday. “That will add approximately $10.5 million to the tolls collected throughout the system.”
A car ride down the Pike from Boston to exit 6 in Springfield costs $5.10, but any further westward travel has no additional toll charge. Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, who represents people who live off exits 1 and 2, said the state should reinstate the tolls to collect money from the many tourists who use that part of the Pike and to keep the roadway in good working order.
“I support it. I’ve been advocating this for several years now. In a state that needs revenue, and a transportation system that definitely needs revenue, 1 through 6 is a loss leader,” Pignatelli told the News Service. “I think that it’s foolish not to try to catch some revenues.”
The Senate’s version of a tax bill to finance transportation (S 1770) includes a provision directing MassDOT to implement tolling on the westernmost stretch of Interstate 90 with the collected revenues to fund road, rail and transit projects in the western counties of Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire. The Senate bill is currently in a closed-door conference committee reconciling the upper chamber’s version with a similar House bill (H 3415). House Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who sits on the conference committee, filed an amendment that would have reinstated tolls on the westernmost exits, though he withdrew the proposal.
Sen. Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican, said he hoped that a reinstatement of the tolls would be a prelude to discussions of tolling on highways such as Interstate 93, which was buried under downtown Boston during the Big Dig project, and that toll revenues be directed to local projects.
“If it’s going to be included, I think the goal is to ensure that whatever revenues are raised be kept within the cost-center of the western counties,” Knapik said. “I would feel comfortable with that.”
Gov. William Weld eliminated the western tolls in 1996, during a time when many powerful senators hailed from western Massachusetts, Knapik pointed out. Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who added the reinstatement language to the Senate bill this year, was then chairman of Ways and Means. The Senate’s minority leader in 1996 was Brian Lees from just outside Springfield, and Jane Swift represented the Berkshires.
“When the Turnpike was built, one of the selling points to the taxpayers of Massachusetts was when the bonds are paid off, it will become a free way,” Pignatelli said. “But you know what, there’s a cost to maintenance.”
Pignatelli said the road is exceptionally well maintained, especially in the winter, and that in the summer 80 percent of the users are from out-of-state.
“We get the fact that these infrastructure improvements are expensive. Somebody’s got to pay for them. The Turnpike has traditionally been a toll generator,” Knapik said. He said, “The larger conversation will be when the technology is now available, what do you do with the Zakim Bridge? What do you do with 93-North? What do you do with 93-South? These become political discussions.”
Knapik said the more than $10 million generated from the tolls would fall far short of meeting the needs of major projects such as the Springfield viaduct, which he said would cost $300 million to $400 million.
Eventually, MassDOT hopes to move to all electronic tolling. Pignatelli said drivers should be offered an incentive to obtain an EZPass transponder as an encouragement to register their cars in Massachusetts, so excise taxes can be collected, rather than Vermont or New Hampshire.
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has expressed concern over the lack of clarity in the House and Senate tax bills about keeping in place Massachusetts Turnpike tolls between Weston and Springfield, which are set to go away in 2017.
On Tuesday, MassDOT released an internal audit of the toll taking system.
Director of Audit Operations James Logan found that security cameras were not present in all areas of toll plazas where cash is handled. He also found some toll collectors are handling personal funds in toll booths, which “may lead to commingling of toll revenue and personal funds.” MassDOT was unable prior to deadline to specify the specific toll booths that were found to be lacking security cameras.
Every year, there are 215 million toll transactions in the state, resulting in $330 million in collected revenue, and 70 percent of that revenue is collected through electronic transponders, such as EZPass.