Toll removal opponents attempt to delay vote

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A coalition of business, environmental and planning groups tried to block the vote, saying toll removal needs to be reviewed by the Secretary of Environmental Affairs because it could affect the environment.

But the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board of directors plan on voting — regardless of the move.

"The Turnpike board voted last month in principle to take down tolls on the western (half of the) Turnpike pending a review of details, and the board plans to vote on this proposal at the next meeting," said MassHighway spokesman Erik Abell.

The tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike west of Route 128 were introduced in 1952 to pay for the roads until the original bonds for the Turnpike were paid off. Those were paid off in 1983, but the tolls stayed, helping to pay for salaries and maintenance.

The tolls could be down as soon as June 30 if the board approves the proposal.

Demolition of the tolls would mean higher state taxes because the Massachusetts Highway Department would be responsible for the upkeep of the road, said Mike Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association.

"This represents a superficial gain for drivers who use the Turnpike, but for the rest of state it's an absolute loss," said Widmer, who signed the letter asking the MTA to delay the vote. "All you're doing here is eliminating a source of revenue and putting it on the back of the taxpayers."

Widmer is also a member of the Transportation Finance Committee, a state board charged with investigating future funding of the state's infrastructure.

The proposal, introduced by Gov. Mitt Romney a few weeks before the election, would save commuters up to $5.40 per trip. The MTA would be folded into the Massachusetts Highway Department and would cost an additional $114 million — $40 million of which would be offset by firing 200 of the state's toll takers. The plan doesn't require legislative approval, according to Romney.

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The board gave the proposal an initial vote of support in October, and said they would take a final vote tomorrow after a legal and financial review of the plan.

State Rep. Christopher Speranzo, D-Pittsfield, believes the board should wait on the vote.

"This has been a process that, in many ways, seems shrouded in mystery," Speranzo said. "I think this needs to be vetted further, and I just don't see what the delay would harm."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, believes taking down the tolls could mean a loss for the state.

"To lose $120 million in revenue when the state infrastructure is already doing poorly is ridiculous in my view," Pignatelli said.

The lack of tolls could also mean throngs of additional drivers on the Turnpike, said Carrie Russell, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

"We don't know exactly what the impacts (of taking down the tolls) will be, but what worries us is the MTA doesn't know either," Russell said.

Transportation Committee Chairman state Rep. Paul Wagner, D-Chicopee, believes the proposal is to put the final polish on Romney's political career as he leaves the corner office with aspirations for the White House.

"It's as political as anything I've seen in 15 years in the Legislature. If I believed it would save taxpayers money, I would be at the head of the charge. But you can't take that kind of revenue away and expect it not to affect the taxpayer," Wagner said.


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