In 1996, Governor William Weld, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Kerry, with much ballyhoo eliminated the tolls on the western end of the Massachusetts Turnpike. They've been gone for 17 years, not on the basis of a well-defined strategy but because of a long-forgotten political stunt. With the state in dire need of transportation revenue it makes sense to bring them back, which may actually happen this week.
A transportation budget compromise by House and Senate leaders that emerged Wednesday calls for the return of the western tolls as part of a package raising $500 million for transportation improvements. The bill would also raise the state's gas tax, which has gone untouched for 21 years, by 3 cents to 26.5 cents a gallon.
The rationale for not returning the tolls has been that Western Massachusetts deserves a break because most transportation money goes to the eastern end of the state. However, the efforts of Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature to correct this imbalance in recent years has largely rendered this argument moot. And whatever modest savings Berkshire residents receive from driving toll-free from Lee to Springfield is more than negated by the revenue lost by giving out-of-state drivers a free ride as they head east.
It is estimated that 80 percent of this toll revenue would come from people living out of state and generate roughly $15 million annually, if not more. That revenue has been lost for 17 years while the road and bridge infrastructure declined dramatically. The tolls should be returned, along with guarantees that Berkshire transportation projects will receive their fair share of the new revenue.