The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's board voted Tuesday to enact a two-stage hike in Boston-area tolls that would be repealed if the Legislature approves a proposed increase in the statewide gasoline tax.
By a 4-1 vote, the board agreed to hike eastern Massachusetts tolls to $1.50 at the Allston-Brighton and Weston booths, and $5.50 at the Boston Harbor tunnel crossings, effective March 29.
The board also voted to raise tolls to $2 at Allston-Brighton and Weston and $7 at the tunnels, effective July 1. Those tolls currently are $1.25 and $3.50. Tolls in western Massachusetts would be unaffected.
Both proposed increases would be canceled if the Legislature approves Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to increase the state's gasoline tax by 19 cents per gallon. The governor proposed the hike — which would leave the state with a nation-leading 42.2-cent gasoline tax — as an alternative to a doubling of tolls initially approved by the Turnpike board in November.
That touched off a wave of public protest and calls for a more equitable means of spreading transportation costs. The Pike is the main route into Boston for MetroWest commuters, while the residents of East Boston, South Boston, Winthrop and the North and South shores frequent the tunnels.
Board member Mary Connaughton voted against the hikes and said she wanted the board to consider fairer alternatives and cost reductions. As she tried to outline a proposed amendment, Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, who also serves as the board's chairman, continually interrupted her and asked her to remain focused on the vote at hand.
As Connaughton sought to explain her amendment, Aloisi stopped her and reread the proposed vote very slowly.
"None of us prefer to do this," said board member Michael Angelini, who proposed the increase. "This is a matter of public responsibility."
He said he hoped the gasoline tax increase would make the toll hikes unnecessary.
Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee and Sen. Steven Baddour of Methuen, co-chairmen of the Joint Committee on Transportation, had urged the board to delay the toll increases until the Legislature decides whether to approve the higher gas tax.
Baddour also chided Patrick for urging swift action on a comprehensive transportation overhaul that includes the gas tax hike even though he hadn't yet filed the bill. Aloisi promised to do so later Tuesday.
"We vote on legislation, not PowerPoint presentations," Baddour said. "It's been 510 days since the governor first started talking about a transportation reform package."
Aloisi said the toll increases are needed to preserve bond ratings for the Turnpike. It is saddled with $2.2 billion in debt from the Big Dig project.
"A two-phased toll increase will allow time for a reform bill to be passed without the full impact of the Turnpike's fiscal problems falling on the toll payers," Aloisi said in a statement issued before the board meeting. "Without the initial action taken (Tuesday), Turnpike bonds will be downgraded to junk bond status — something that's bad for every state agency and authority. Our commitment is to roll this toll increase back as soon as the Legislature passes a comprehensive reform and revenue package."
Meanwhile, Connaughton complained that Aloisi was pushing her off the Pike's Audit Committee, even though she is the only certified public accountant on the panel, because she has been a vocal critic of Patrick's Turnpike plans.
Former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney appointed Connaughton to the board in September 2005. She will be replaced by Angelini, a lawyer and appointee of Patrick, a Democrat. Aloisi also is a Patrick appointee.
"The chair is revolving seats on the committee to ensure fairness and let every board member have the opportunity to serve on the Audit Committee," said a statement from Aloisi spokesman Colin Durrant. "The only reason the chair made this decision is to ensure fairness in committee membership, allowing every board member the opportunity to serve."
Connaughton said taking her off the committee will reduce her access to financial data.
"This is not about fairness to committee members, but about what's right for toll payers," she said. "And what's fair for toll payers is to have someone on the board with financial expertise."
This program aired on February 24, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.