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Debate Ratchets Up Over Pike Tolls, Transportation Reform, Revenue

This article is more than 10 years old.

By Meghna Chakrabarti (The Third Rail)

"It depends," was my college accounting professor's preferred response. "It's all a matter of interpretation," a favorite of my high school physics teacher. And, "an F is simply a one-legged A," the aphorism of choice from my middle school algebra teacher.

Apparently, a similar logic set applies on Beacon Hill, as this week's heated back-and-forth over transportation funding between Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray proves.

In this case, the one-legged A's are promises both the Governor and the legislative leadership made regarding massive transportation reform and revenue generation.

The latest salvo came on Wednesday, when Murray issued a strongly worded statement saying the Senate refuses to support any toll increase on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The statement was prompted by Patrick's increasingly vocal criticism of legislators' efforts on transportation reform.

"The Senate intends to honor its agreement with the Administration, reached in March," the statement says, "to pass significant transportation reform and dedicate revenue for the Turnpike Authority and other transportation agencies to avoid toll increases."

The March agreement - a joint statement issued by Murray, Patrick, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo - included this line:

"Leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives have agreed to determine the need for new revenues and to enact legislation that would provide adequate revenues to support the reform proposal and fund our long term transportation needs no later than July 1, 2009."

So, from funding long term transportation needs to simply avoiding tolls? A one-legged A? As my accounting professor would say, "It depends."

This was all, in part, triggered by Patrick's two-year delay in formally proposing promised transportation reform. He, and Transportation Secretary James Aloisi, were also for the toll increase before they were against it in March.

But, the irrefutable facts are these:

In 2007, the Transportation Fianance Commission concluded that the state would need, on average, $1 billion a year for the next 20 years, to cover the most minimum maintenance costs of our current transportation system.

The Turnpike toll hike totals $100 million, and the money would serve the immediate needs of the debt-laden agency. Patrick and Aloisi have promised they will implement it on July 1, if transportation, pensions, and ethics reform are not enacted.

Meanwhile, the MBTA is days away from formalizing a $160 million deficit for its FY2010 budget. The Authority has already filed preliminary paperwork for a fare increase, and has outlined severe service cuts if additional funding is not found.

The latest proposals have new transportation revenues coming from a new higher sales tax. The proposal earmarks $275 milllion in total for all the state's transportation needs, prompting administration and finance undersecretary Jay Gonzalez to tell lawmakers the amount is roughly enough to address only the immediate budget crises at the Mass. Turnpike Authority and the MBTA.

And finally, the hammer comes down both on Pike drivers and T riders on July 1st, when the fiscal year begins, and Patrick's threatened toll hikes could go into effect.

"Transportation reform legislation will be coming out of conference committee before the budget reaches the governor's desk," Murray's Wednesday statement said.

But does that mean before July 1? As my physics teacher would say, "It's all a matter of interpretation."

This program aired on May 27, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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