Six decades of temporary tolls

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

A few years ago I wrote about the Massachusetts Turnpike’s plan to keep tolls indefinitely by letting the road decay.

In late 2015 MassDOT admitted it had failed to maintain the Massachusetts Turnpike and top officials resigned in disgrace.

I’m kidding, of course. MassDOT extended tolls indefinitely. Failure brought reward instead of punishment. Only by failing to keep the road in proper condition could leaders keep the funding source they and their entourage of patronage employees counted on.

If toll extension wasn’t inevitable when I wrote in early 2012, it was by late summer. In July the Supreme Judicial Court rejected a challenge to diversion of Turnpike toll revenue to pay for the Big Dig.

Politicians noticed that. If drivers in Stockbridge can pay for tunnels in Boston, why can’t drivers in Sturbridge pay for roads in North Adams?

Massachusetts voters are funny. They revolt against gas taxes and seat belt laws, but tolerate tolls and low speed limits. Politicians noticed that too. They worry about voting gas tax hikes, but not about making Turnpike drivers subsidize everybody else.

Only the details are unique to Massachusetts. Virginia has a legal requirement that tolls benefit those who pay tolls… but new toll revenue is probably destined for transit projects. Pennsylvania had the same plan for I-80 tolls. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey charges four times as much as it needs so it can fund other projects.

The new transportation bill changes rules for tolling existing highways. You’ll be hearing threats and promises.

We used to know how to hold people to their promises. Exchanging hostages was a tradition to keep peace between rulers. Imagine if the governor’s family would only be freed when the toll booths came down.

But we don’t do that any more, and it’s hard to see how anything less will work.

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