As state officials re-up a $1.5 million contract to study new tolls, legislators and transportation advocates say the mood has changed on Beacon Hill toward adding new road fees in order to reduce congestion and pay for infrastructure needs.
According to some lawmakers, drivers are actually open to a hike.
“There’s absolutely been a shift,” said State Sen. Joseph Boncore (D-Boston), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “There’s a lot of polling data that suggests people don’t mind paying user fees if the benefit is better roads and less congestion.”
MassDOT is looking for consultants to study traffic and revenue throughout the state over three years for a fee of $500,000 a year, according to a bid solicitation released this month. The tolls on the Mass Pike, the airport tunnels, and the Tobin Bridge currently bring in more than $375 million a year, and the study asks consultants to look at not just pricing changes but new toll opportunities altogether.
“Assist MassDOT with feasibility studies, opinions, and recommendations on [traffic and revenue] and other impacts from toll policy and pricing changes as well as potential toll expansions, such as border tolls, HOT or managed lanes, Truck Only Tolling, Vehicle Miles Travelled, etc.,” the bid reads, also mentioning congestion and time-of-day pricing.
HOT, or high-occupancy traffic lanes let single drivers use a carpool lane in exchange for paying a toll, while a Vehicle Miles Traveled program would tax cars through a transponder based on the amount of road they traverse. Boncore said the Senate’s working group on road issues will take a “good hard look” at VMT, but noted that proposals will take a year to produce.
The request appears to be a second incarnation of a similar state contract that the Texas-based Jacobs Engineering Group received in 2016, though a MassDOT spokesman said Jacobs was limited to producing reports related to revenue forecasts and rates during the 2016 transition away from toll booths. Meanwhile, on the traffic front, MassDOT’s planning department is currently studying congestion statewide. A study released earlier this year by the transportation analytics firm INRIX found Boston to have the worst rush-hour traffic in the US in 2018.
Though Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed back on new tolls, other Beacon Hill leaders are open to a jump. Sen. President Karen Spilka said last month she would consider the idea of border tolls, while Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo said that all tax hikes are on the table.
Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation For Massachusetts, agreed that political attitudes are shifting in favor of more road taxes, and said plans like adding tolls to I-93 and the Tip O’Neill Tunnel would more fairly tax drivers heading north and south as opposed to only east-west travelers who pay tolls on I-90.
“You’ve got political leaders hearing loud and clear from the public that the status quo is not working,” Dempsey said. “We absolutely have to ask the question, is the system fair and are there ways to make it more fair and have people chip in, whatever road they’re driving on. We’re falling behind on maintenance for the Tip O’Neill tunnel because we’re not generating the revenue to cover costs.”