Turnpike Inequity: The Time to Fix it is Now

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“I completely get we have an equity issue (with tolls) we need to address”, Richard Davey, the then Secretary of Transportation, conceded to the editorial board of the MetroWest Daily in March 2014. He also stated that tolls wouldn’t likely be removed on the Mass Pike west of Rte. 128 as they were slated to be because the highway likely would not be in a state of good repair.

Since his candid admission, efforts to fix the persistent highway inequity have stalled. Conversations about MassDOT’s incoming cashless tolling system have renewed the debate. Legislators have yet to seriously tackle the fairness of charging more for some motorists to drive than others.

Drivers using the Pike to get into and out of Boston have paid tolls for over a half-century, while those using I-93 to get in and out of Boston from points north and south pay no tolls. Legislators have suggested plans addressing collection equality, but passing a bill to improve the status of a minority of the legislature’s constituents would mean increasing the cost on the majority. They all want fairness, until it costs them something.

In December 2014, MassDOT released a plan that evaluated tolling other roads, such as Routes 128 and 3. Frank Depaola, the then MassDOT Highway administrator, (now Acting General Manager of the MBTA) had briefly discussed the possibilities of new tolls, stating, “With the electronic tolling format, it would allow us to look at other potential tolling locations.”

But there are barriers to toll expansion. Expanded tolling on interstate highways would require federal approval. Discussing a future Route 3 Project, at a Hingham Town Hall meeting, Department of Transportation Chief Financial Officer Dana Levenson was featured in a Weymouth Wicked Local News Report. Levenson claimed that studies conducted over the next few years could develop plans to improve traffic flow across the entire region. She spoke of introducing tolls in areas as a response to inequity. Levenson estimates that it would take a minimum of two to four years of studies before contractors are ready to break ground, plus an additional four years of construction. She holds the only way to possibly pay for the project would be by entering into a “public-private partnership.”

Come summer 2016, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials plan to eliminate the existing rate structure, aided by a newly cashless collection system. Drivers will no longer be charged based on where they enter and exit the turnpike. The new collection process will divide segments of the Western Turnpike and Metropolitan highway system into three sections. Each time a driver passes beneath a gantry, a charge of 40 cents will be levied to their E-ZPass. Drivers traveling between Interstate 95 and Exit 17, in Newton Corner will be among the first to experience the new charge. Over the next year, the entire Massachusetts tolling system will be converted, saving $45 million in annual operating expenses, as reported by MassDot.

While the changed collection structure offers some solution to the complaints that many residents lodge about the lack of equity between commuters in different regions of I90 itself, many motorists remain distrustful of the system overall. “Ever since the Big Dig, there has been a huge amount of frustration from people who live west of Boston and commute on the Mass. Pike that there isn’t a toll on Route 93 and the Central Artery,” said Newton commuter Ted Hess-Mahan in a Boston Globe public opinion piece. He further elaborated, “Now they want to add another toll at West Newton, and there’s no consideration that we’re paying for the Central Artery, benefitting people living north and south of Boston.”

As the inequity issue persists, frustration mounts among MetroWest legislators. Conversations remain generally noncommittal. In light of the cashless tolling project, Sen. Karen Spilka, of Ashland recently expressed concern in a WCVB News story. Spilka worries that technology may thwart attempts to improve toll equity. Directly replacing old tolls with new technology will only further cement the uneven costs burdening specific commuters. Strategic, deliberate station placement is necessary for overall equity, worried Spilka.

While impressed by MassDOT’s willingness to embrace strategies to reduce congestion and pollution, Spilka said she will continue to push for ensuring toll revenue is spent on the road it is collected on. Having seen MassDOT’s 2014 alternate road tolling proposal, Spilka said she is concerned that it brings up many concerns and problems with tolls elsewhere. Though clearly bothered by the system’s inequality, Spilka expressed some hesitancy towards the idea of tolling Route 3.  Additionally, Spilka told WCVB that she has written a letter to MassDOT seeking greater transparency on tolling and toll revenue issues. Spilka’s concern is mirrored by many administrators, who struggle to reconcile the various elements, issues and conflicting opinions of the inequity issue.

Jessica Strunkin, deputy director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, also questioned MassDOT’s prioritization of the equity issue. Tolling technology  “represents an opportunity to address some of the bigger challenges relative to congestion at that interchange…clearly moving toward all-electronic tolling is important but, overall we’re opposed to the inequity,” Strunkin told WCVB, stressing toll inequality as the pressing concern.

The longstanding debate on toll equity is heating up. MassDOT’s move to go cashless at the same time tolling on the western turnpike is scheduled to end stoked the flames of the argument.

It’s time for the legislature and state officials to do the right thing: act to either toll all major roadways or eliminate western turnpike tolls altogether. With the investment the state is about to make in cashless tolling, it’s now or never.

Christina Doran is a Transparency Intern at Pioneer Institute from the University of Richmond, majoring in English and Economics.