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By Meghna Chakrabarti (WBUR)
Massachusetts drivers may get a reprieve from toll increases that were set to go into effect on March 29. In a surprise move, Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday called for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to delay the hike until July 1.
It was just last month that the Turnpike Board of Directors, headed by Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, pushed through a pair of toll increases that would have raised an additional $100 million for the debt-ridden authority.
At the time, most board members agreed, alarm bells were ringing for the Pike's bond rating, which could have been downgraded to junk status had a toll vote not passed.
But yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick called for the Pike to push back those toll hikes to July 1 and cover the agency's operating debt with funds from its cash reserve.
GOV. DEVAL PATRICK: Now, there are costs and risks associated with that postponement.
Specifically, the cost to the Pike's cash reserve. Turnpike Executive Director Alan LeBovidge estimates up to $20 million would have to be drawn from the Pike's $54 million reserve to get the agency to the end of this fiscal year.
The plan also risks leaving rating agencies unimpressed, a fact Patrick acknowledged.
GOV. PATRICK: But we believe those costs and risks are worth it because of the genuine prospect of a long term solution.
That both surprises and pleases Turnpike Board member Mary Connaughton. She was the lone dissenter on last month's toll hike vote.
MARY CONNAUGHTON: Quite frankly, I'm taken aback that the governor would have changed direction so rapidly on this when it was his team that was pushing for the $100 million toll hike. But, I would support this move because I don't think enough has been done in terms of looking for efficiencies and alternatives to such a large toll hike.
That's what Senate President Therese Murray has been advocating. She stood alongside the governor at his announcement yesterday, and said the Pike plan allows her to push ahead with her own transportation reform bill.
SENATE PRESIDENT THERESE MURRAY: This is going to give us some time, but we have made a commitment as part of this agreement that the Senate will take up this bill next week, and the reforms will move ahead.
Reforms, but not revenue. At least, not yet. House Speaker Robert DeLeo also pledged his chamber would debate proposed reforms in two weeks. But he would not say whether or not the House would discuss Governor Patrick's proposed 19-cent per gallon increase in the state gas tax.
HOUSE SPEAKER ROBERT DeLEO: All of us here are committed to true transportation reform, and closely thereafter, depending upon what that reform may be, we'll decide at a later date what the revenue package may be.
Both legislative leaders said measures to fund long-term transportation needs would be enacted by July 1.
If not, according to a statement issued by the Executive Office of Transportation yesterday, the $100 million toll increase will go into effect to, "solve the Turnpike Authority's funding crisis."
The Turnpike Board of Directors expects to vote on the governor's interim funding plan on Monday.
This program aired on March 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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