As part of the recently passed transportation funding legislation, the state House and Senate directed the state Department of Transportation to devise and implement a plan to restore the tolls to the Western end of the Massachusetts Turnpike. It seems unlikely that the Legislature will not weigh in on what the DOT comes up with, especially considering that public hearings will be held somewhere between Exit 1 in West Stockbridge and Exit 6 in Chicopee, followed by a public comment period, but restoration of the tolls should not be sidetracked. The benefits of restoring the tolls far outweigh whatever negatives will be raised in the weeks ahead.
The process of restoring the tolls is far more thoughtful than was the process, if it can be called that, of removing them 17 years ago. Governor William Weld unilaterally decided to get rid of the western tolls, and the joke in political circles was that the governor didn't want to have to pay any tolls as he passed through the Berkshires on his way to and from his hunting camp in the Adirondacks. Significantly, Mr. Weld was running for election to the U.S. Senate that year, ultimately losing to incumbent Democrat John Kerry.
While the absence of tolls saves Berkshire residents a little money as they drive east and then return home, that money is modest compared to the funds lost by giving out-of-state residents a free ride as they cruise through the Berkshires on the pike. Estimates are that 80 percent of the toll revenue if and when the tolls are restored would come from out-of-state residents, and the conservative estimate of the money raised would be $15 million a year. That would mean that at least $250 million has been lost in toll money since 1996.
If the stipulation that the tolls should ultimately be removed from the turnpike was ever realistic it certainly is not now. The tolls on what eastern Massachusetts refers to as the "western" end of the turnpike (from the Route 95 interchange through Exit 7) are to be removed in 2017, and the uncomfortable truth raised by Governor Deval Patrick during the recent transportation bill debate is that cannot happen unless another revenue source, such as an additional hike in the gasoline tax, is implemented to compensate.
Maintaining the state's oft-neglected road and bridge infrastructure, including that of the Berkshires, and improving the state's public transportation network, including both bus and rail service, costs money, which can be generated by tolls from Boston to the New York border. The money raised, the majority of it from non-Massachusetts drivers, will be money well spent. Restoring the far western tolls is an obvious decision, and this should happen before the end of 2013. The state has given away enough revenue.