Patrick administration denies eyeing I-93 tolls

Associated Press | 2/26/2009, 9:15 a.m.

A state official suggested last Friday that the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick was considering instituting tolls on Interstate 93, only to have the governor’s top aide say hours later nothing of the sort was under consideration — yet.

Undersecretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan said during a budget hearing in Revere that a toll plan was something the administration was considering as a way to close a $19 billion transportation funding shortfall. I-93 is one of the state’s main north-south arteries, running through Boston and to the New Hampshire border, and travelers currently pay no tolls for using it.

Other administration aides have denied tolls are being considered, and at mid-afternoon, Doug Rubin, Patrick’s chief of staff, said the statement “was not consistent with the administration’s position.”

Rubin added: “Governor Patrick firmly believes that we must look for reforms and efficiencies throughout our transportation system before we ask toll payers to pay more. He has been clear that adding tolls throughout I-93 is not an option the administration is prepared to consider at this point. He has directed the secretary of transportation to continue to review the system and find ways to achieve savings and efficiencies first before the administration seriously considers any revenue enhancement options.”

Lawmakers in central and western Massachusetts have long complained about lingering tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, the main east-west thoroughfare in the state. They have said they want the tolls taken down on Interstate 90, or other drivers should share the burden of paying for the nearly $15 billion Big Dig project in Boston.

Earlier last week, Turnpike officials discussed the implementation of “open-road tolling” in which cars pay tolls not at tollbooths, but by having a fee deducted from an electronic transponder in their vehicle when they pass under a collection point.

The state’s “Fast Lane” program does that at existing toll booths, but states elsewhere that have instituted open-road tolling programs in which drivers pass under readers at standard highway speeds, eliminating backups and the danger of cars braking as they head into concrete and metal toll collection points.

I-93 is part of the Interstate Highway System, where tolls are generally outlawed except if they are plowed back into maintaining the roadway itself. The federal government has recently relaxed some of those regulations, leaving administration officials believing they could institute tolls with federal approval.

State Sen. Steve Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, opposes I-93 tolls and was among those attending last Friday’s hearing.

He said Mullan may have been “caught up in the banter” of the hearing, adding, “In all of my conversations with Mullan and with [Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen], it’s always been, ‘Reform first.’ And they get that.”

Mac Daniel, a Cohen spokesman, said in a statement: “Today, Undersecretary Mullan explained that the administration is focused on reforms before it seeks new revenue to fund our transportation system. We are not proposing any changes in the current toll structure. Before we review available revenue options, we will ensure that we have achieved every savings possible throughout the system.”

(Associated Press)