Ring of molasses

Massachusetts politicians filed a bill to charge tolls on all the highways leading to Boston. The mayor of Boston likes the bill because toll revenue would be spent in his city.

The new tolls are seen as politically feasible because there won’t be any toll booths. Cameras will track every car and decide who to bill. Cameras will also record where people go, because that’s too tempting not to do.

One excuse is that existing tolls are inequitable. The Big Dig was funded by raising existing tolls. Drivers from the West, who mostly did not benefit from the project, subsidized free trips for drivers from the North and South who did.

The solution to that problem has been obvious from the beginning. It should cost several dollars per trip to drive through the tunnels under Boston.

If the new proposal just added tunnel tolls it wouldn’t be a big deal. But Big Dig tolls are not the plan. The plan is to toll everybody who drives on the surface highways inside the Route 128 beltway.

The explicitly stated purposes of the bill are to make it hurt to drive and fund mass transit with tolls. The MBTA is billions in debt because, like the highway agencies, it felt it had a blank check to build anything. State officials are afraid to recover even operating costs, much less capital costs, from riders. They are not afraid to make everybody else pay.

The toll plan is a revenue grab combined with the political instinct to control people. There is a lot of admiration for London’s “Ring of Steel” in East Coast cities.

A contributing factor is a pro-toll attitude in Washington. Traditionally federal-aid highways couldn’t have tolls, except for bridges and tunnels. Now there are more exceptions. If a state says tolls are to help manage congestion, the state gets more favorable treatment under federal regulations. The federal DOT used to fund road building. Now it encourages states to discourage highway use.

For most of the past 20 years I’ve worked in the suburbs. My current job is at the edge of Cambridge, at the end of Route 2 where they want to collect tolls. I may switch to city streets.

If residents complain, I can tell them I am driving through their cities under a state mandate to reduce congestion on Route 2.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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