Big Dig’s Big Debt May Drive Up Tolls

Published February 1, 2009

Massachusetts residents who use the state turnpike will see increased tolls, including sharp increases entering the city of Boston, if the governor and the authority overseeing the system get their way.

The turnpike board has approved a recommendation to double tolls on the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels in Boston to $7 and increase the levy on Interstate 90 in and out of Boston to $2 from $1.25 for cash payers.

Drivers buying transponders would receive a discount but still pay increased tolls under the turnpike authority’s proposal.

The turnpike authority was expected to hold hearings on the proposed increases through early January and vote on the proposal after that.

Costs of Mismanagement

Turnpike authority spokesman Matt Daniel said the increased funds are needed to help reduce the debt from the so-called Big Dig project, a $15 billion public works effort that involved putting much of I-93 through Boston below ground and removing the old I-93 above-ground road.

“It was the largest public works project in the nation,” Daniel said. “There were cost overruns and project mismanagement by previous administrations. Now we’re saddled with a huge amount of debt that we’re going to be paying off through the year 2032.”

As a result of the cost overruns and interest payments on the debt, “we’re in dire financial need,” Daniel said. “The tolls are our main source of revenue.”

Outcry Against Tunnel Tolls

The public outcry against the proposed increases has been strong, Daniel admitted. He says turnpike users are particularly upset over the doubling of the tolls for the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels. Many drivers would prefer more standard increases across the turnpike system or a gas tax hike instead of a toll increase.

“We haven’t had a gas tax increase in the state since 1981,” Daniel said.

“Given the excessive proposal now on the table for doubling some tolls, one that will cost drivers in certain areas hundreds of dollars more each year just to get to work, I believe we must seriously consider alternatives like a gas tax increase,” said Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi (D-North End).

“The fact is, the Massachusetts gas tax is below the national average, and while we would all prefer not to burden drivers with any new cost in difficult times, I believe the gas tax is a fairer way to share our costs and it should be fully considered before any tolls are increased,” DiMasi added.

Administrative Change

Daniel said the turnpike authority supports Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D) plan to consolidate the state’s different transportation authorities.

He said the state’s turnpike and highway authorities and the agencies responsible for Logan International Airport and Tobin Memorial Bridge, both in Boston, plus those overseeing mass transit, parkways, and Boston Harbor, duplicate administrative overhead and strategy, personnel and pension systems, and maintenance programs.

“Despite the cuts we’ve made and the reforms we’ve made, we can only reform the agency so far,” Daniel said. The next step in reform would be the change in turnpike oversight.

In a recent op-ed column published in the Boston Globe, Patrick wrote, “we cannot cut and save our way to a better system. We need fundamental change.”

Systemwide Planning

The governor wants to plan and finance transportation needs on a systemwide basis, Patrick said.

“We all have a stake in the viability of a multi-modal transportation system. People should be able to move easily from car to commuter rail to subway to regional bus to water taxi,” Patrick wrote. “These components must be structured and paid for in a manner that recognizes that common purpose: to bring ease of movement safely and economically to Massachusetts citizens.”

Even if the governor’s recommendations are pursued, it will take several years before the benefits are realized, Patrick acknowledged in the article.

“We need to take the first steps now, by eliminating the Turnpike Authority, reassigning its responsibilities, and restructuring its debt,” Patrick wrote. “The Turnpike Authority once served a useful purpose, but Massachusetts no longer needs an independent authority running one toll highway.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.