When tolls refuse to hit the road—even after projects they fund are fully paid—not much of what follows seems good for toll payers or taxpayers.
According to its enabling law, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, established in 1952—and its tolls—should have gone out of business in 1988. Instead, 21 years later tolls are not only still being collected but have risen several times during the interim. and they recently would have shot up again if lawmakers had not chosen to raise the state’s sales tax by a whopping 25 percent, from 5 to 6.25 percent.
Taxes Taking Toll
Included in this year’s budget bill, the increase was part of a $1 billion tax hike and made it difficult for an anti-toll group to get the 66,593 signatures needed to add the issue to the 2010 ballot. Citizens Against Toll Roads filed ballot questions requiring the commonwealth to eliminate tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Tobin Bridge, and Boston Harbor Tunnels by 2012, establish a trust fund to cover existing debts on these roads, and prohibit future tolls.
If citizens thought the estimated $900 million in revenue raised by the sales tax hike would mean the elimination or at least a reduction of tolls, they were fooled. Only about $100 million will go to the turnpike system, the rest to other government programs.
“They used [the tax increase] as a wedge to raise more revenue that they could spend while keeping the movement to rid the turnpike of tolls at bay,” said Mary Connaughton, a former member of the turnpike authority. “At best the tax increase will probably keep tolls from increasing—for now.”
As part of his attempt to give the troubled turnpike authority a public-relations makeover while avoiding angering labor unions by eliminating toll collectors’ jobs, Gov. Deval Patrick (D) last November replaced the turnpike authority with a new state transportation mega-board. Despite her knowledge about Massachusetts’ transportation boondoggles, Connaughton was denied a seat on the new board.
Connaughton is running for the Republican nomination for state auditor, but her auditing background is not what brought on the campaign. Instead, it was a result of her view of the turnpike authority’s spending habits.
“After seeing firsthand the utterly wasteful spending, I decided I wanted to bring more transparency and accountability to state government,” said Connaughton.
Big Dig’s Big Cost
A 2008 Reason Foundation study analyzed costs for 35 toll facilities and determined the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was among the most inefficient.
While public toll authorities nationally had a “cost-take” of 43 percent, the Massachusetts operation consumed 79 percent, or $203 million out of $253 million of its revenues, in operating and maintenance costs.
Operating at the average of the 35 facilities studied would reduce Massachusetts’ cost-take to $100 million, saving $103 million a year, according to the study.
‘Big Dig Users Should Pay’
While she doesn’t necessarily oppose tolls, Connaughton stresses she is “opposed to the inequitable distribution of toll spending.”
She points to funding for the Central Artery/Tunnel project, known as the Big Dig, rerouting north-south Interstate 93 into a 3.5-mile tunnel through the heart of Boston. It’s the most expensive and troubled transportation project in U.S. history.
“People who use the Big Dig should be the ones who are paying for it,” Connaughton said, not drivers like her who live west of the city, use the east-west Turnpike, and do not benefit from the Big Dig.
Jan Schlichtmann, an attorney from Beverly, about 20 miles northeast of Boston, who was portrayed by actor John Travolta in the 1988 film A Civil Action, has been leading a group claiming Massachusetts has been acting illegally in taking money from the east-west Turnpike to pay Big Dig debts.
“Big Dig comes along, and what do they see?” Connaughton railed at a recent Stop the Pike Hike rally. “They see on the western horizon—they see these toll booths as gargantuan dollar signs. They look to the east and they see the toll booths at the harbor as gargantuan dollar signs. And that’s continuing.
“This is fundamentally unfair. One portion of the population should not be subsidizing the others,” he added.
Paying at the Pump
Even those “gargantuan dollar signs” are not large enough, and there’s now a debate over raising the state’s gasoline tax to plug budget shortfalls, including Big Dig-related debts.
Patrick wants to nearly double the tax, from 23.5 cents to 42.5 cents per gallon. Including the federal levy of 18.4 cents, drivers would pay 60 cents in taxes on every gallon of gasoline purchased.
A Boston Globe poll in December reported a gas tax, while still unpopular with commuters, would be slightly more palatable than toll increases, by a 48 percent to 42 percent margin.
Connaughton expects the tolls to remain despite a promise in the turnpike’s enabling law that when all the bonds originally issued had been paid “the turnpike, if then in good condition” would become a toll-free part of the state highway system.
“‘If then in good condition’—of course, that’s very subjective,” Connaughton noted.
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.