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Highway Robbery

Driving backwards on the Mass Turnpike

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It was folly to think we’d ever see the tolls come down on the MassPike. But if the denizens of Beacon Hill are determined to keep picking motorists’ pockets to pay for a road that was paid off decades ago, it would have been nice of them to at least let a few toll collectors keep their jobs.

The latest scheme to keep the Pike not only alive but growing comes as part of the new transportation financing law passed last month by the Legislature, overriding Gov. Deval Patrick’s veto. While Patrick and lawmakers were at odds during the fight over the bill, the state’s top dogs now appear unified behind a plan to restore tolls between Springfield and West Stockbridge this fall; those tolls were eliminated for passenger vehicles in 1996.

More sinister in my view is the Patrick administration’s plan to spend $250 million to eliminate toll booths and the need for human toll collectors from one end of the pike to the other by 2017. The state currently employs more than 400 toll collectors.

Under the Masachusetts Department of Transportation plan, drivers would no longer have the option to pay cash. Instead of paying workers to take tolls, the state will use cameras to photograph license plates of drivers who choose not to install a state-issued EZ Pass transponder. The Luddites without transponders will get a bill, and be charged higher rates that the transponder-compliant.

While state officials go through the motions of public hearings (including one this week at Springfield City Hall, Aug. 22 at 6 p.m.), the smart money says the MassDOT plan goes through without a snag, just as the first move to automate this highway robbery did under Republican leadership 20 years ago, when the EZ Pass system was first introduced.

I’ve been ambivalent about tolls on the Pike for years. As a driver, I tend to enjoy the niceties one encounters on most toll roads, which are generally, though not always, better maintained, more scenic or at least more tree-lined, and safer than free roads. As a taxpayer and a proponent of fair and progressive forms of taxation, I see the MassPike as a criminal enterprise, maintained cynically by generations of governors and legislative leaders to feed the state’s insatiable addiction to all that easy money.

The bonds that justified the tolls initially have long been retired. The toll we pay has been redirected to pay for the Big Dig and lots of smaller digs, though far fewer here in the Valley than we deserve based on our contributions.

Now we’ll pay more—$250 million for technology that not only tracks our whereabouts but makes it more convenient for the state to keep grabbing its take. And 400 jobs will be lost. Sadly, this is what passes for progress on Beacon Hill these days.

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