Times are tough for everyone, including state governments.
So, it was no surprise when Gov. Deval Patrick came out with his plan to fold the state's financially shaky and redundant Turnpike Authority into the Massachusetts Port Authority and to reshape the toll structure along the Commonwealth's main artery.
The plan had us thinking, "What's Massachusetts without the Turnpike Authority?" We came to a quick answer: Better off.
Past Its Prime
The Turnpike Authority was supposed to dissolve decades ago once the roadway's construction bonds were retired, but it's hung on for dear life since then, as have its toll collectors. With the state facing a financial crisis — and crushing debt from the infamous Big Dig — the time has come for the authority to go the way of the dodo.
The economic crisis we face is forcing businesses to take a hard look at their operations and reduce waste. We should expect no less from the state.
Massachusetts has too many agencies all vying to control the transportation system. Trying to keep the alphabet soup of transportation-related fiefdoms — including the Highway Department, the Turnpike Authority, MassPort and the MBTA — is a full-time job. And the result of that duplication has largely been inefficiency. Take a drive down any state highway or road and you'll find that our infrastructure has largely been ignored, despite the steady stream of income from onerous tolls. Streamlining the regulations by eliminating the Turnpike Authority is a step in the right direction.
But perhaps the stickiest — and most politically weighted — aspect of Patrick's turnpike plan would be the changes to the road's toll structure.
The plan calls for all tolls west of 128 to be eliminated within two years, except for those at the state's boundaries in Stockbridge on the New York border and Sturbridge on the Connecticut border. Under that plan, Central Massachusetts residents that live and work within the region would benefit from lowered costs (and fewer bottlenecks).
But the issue has become murky as the Turnpike Authority gave preliminary approval for hikes in and around Boston, including doubling the tolls to $7 on the two tunnels into Boston. Not surprisingly, outrage to the hike has spread like wildfire.
Gas It Up
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has come out against the toll hikes around Boston and has thrown his political muscle behind an unspecific plan to increase the state's 23.5-center-per-gallon gas tax. He argues that the gas tax increase would be a more equitable way of spreading the pain of Big Dig debt.
While we sympathize with commuters into Boston, we also have to be realistic. After all, a $7 toll into a major city is not unusual. Just cross the Hudson River into Manhattan. You'll be asked to pay an ample $8.
The governor's office was reportedly noncommittal on DiMasi's gas take hike. But we hope the state's chief executive sees the light soon that a statewide gas tax increase is a bad move.
Massachusetts gains a substantial amount of traffic from its neighbors — Connecticut and New York in particular — because its gas prices run nearly 40 cents lower. Upping the price of gas in the Commonwealth would bring in extra tax revenue, but hurt businesses along the state borders.
It's time for the state — including its residents and politicians — to get practical about the current financial crisis. The Big Dig was an ill-thought-out graft fest and we're all going to pay the price one way or another. The proposed plan for the Turn-pike Authority and the new toll structure is an equitable solution that deserves a chance.