Massachusetts moves to end tolls west of Route 128

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The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday, Oct. 18, to begin the process of eliminating all tolls on the turnpike west of the Route 128 toll plaza in Weston. The proposal, which recommends the elimination of the western tolls by June 30, 2007, was contained in a report by Eric Kriss, former state secretary of administration and finance.

Kriss was appointed by Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to lead an investigation of Turnpike operations after ceiling panels in one of the Big Dig tunnels collapsed in June, killing a woman. The Turnpike “cannot continue ‘as is’ and must implement significant operational and fiscal changes as soon as possible,” his report said.

“The Turnpike Authority is a mess, with an expensive cost structure and no ability to sustain itself except through higher and higher toll increases in perpetuity,” Romney said. “This is not fair to the residents who live west of Boston and are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of the Big Dig. It’s time we start to dismantle this highly inefficient system.”

The plan still is subject to a final vote by the board Nov. 15, after the election, but its ultimate approval is expected. Also publicly championing the Romney administration’s plan was Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, the Republican candidate for governor in the fall election less than three weeks away. Critics of the plan questioned the timing of the announcement. Romney himself, also a Republican, is not seeking re-election but is planning a run for president in 2008.

According to a statement released by the governor’s office, the repayment of the Western Turnpike debt will be made through a combination of reserves and service plaza revenues. The state Highway Department will assume control of the road, and about $60 million in operation and maintenance costs will be shifted to the state, most of which will be picked up by the capital budget. According to the governor’s office, the plan will save $40 million in administrative overhead and toll-collection costs; this would be accomplished in part by laying off about 200 toll collectors, half the number now employed by the Turnpike.

The report also suggests canceling all tolls east of the Route 128 toll plaza, except in the airport tunnels, a move that would require an act of the majority-Democrat Legislature. According to The Boston Globe, the Turnpike board has taken no action on that proposal. The Globe also reported that a special state commission examining transportation funds is also discussing tolls – and the possibility that they need to be increased, not cut. Members are divided on the issue.