Toll-cutting momentum slows in Massachusetts

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A controversial proposal to eliminate tolls west of Route 128 in Weston, which seemed on the fast track to approval before the Nov. 7 election, now will be opened up to public review, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has decided.

The proposal originated with a report commissioned by outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and was endorsed by the GOP’s candidate to succeed Romney in 2007, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey. But Healey lost, 35 percent to 56 percent, to Deval Patrick, the first Democrat to be elected governor in Massachusetts in 16 years.

The new governor-elect has expressed doubts that eliminating the tolls would be a good idea. Critics say it simply would drive up tolls elsewhere on the turnpike.

The turnpike board asserted after its Nov. 15 meeting that it continues to plan to eliminate the tolls, and accordingly has authorized the negotiation of an agreement to turn over responsibility of the Western Turnpike to the state Highway Department.

Before the election, however, many had expected final approval from the board at its Nov. 15 meeting, not an indefinite extension of the discussion. “Board members admitted the delay could be a death knell for the proposal,” The Lowell Sun reported.

The proposal to eliminate the tolls, which the turnpike board had endorsed unanimously Oct. 18, was contained in a report by Eric Kriss, former state secretary of administration and finance. Romney appointed Kriss 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 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 at the time. “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.”

In a statement released after the Nov. 15 meeting, the new governor-elect applauded the board’s caution. “I am sympathetic to the interest in equity for those who use the Turnpike west of Route 128 and am looking forward to addressing that as governor,” Patrick said. “But government has to act responsibly for the long-term interest of us all, and making this decision today without all the homework done first would have been unwise.”