Generations of Massachusetts drivers have faced tolls around here only while on the Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, or in the Boston Harbor tunnels. But that could soon change.
The state Legislature wants to appoint a commission charged with recommending new “roadway pricing” opportunities across the state. Or, to put it another way: more tolls.
The panel would explore other possible ideas, too. What about charging more to travel in and out of Boston at peak times of day, and less at off-peak times? Or giving drivers the option to pay a premium to access so-called managed lanes and speed past traffic? Or making motorists pay a certain amount for each mile they travel? Maybe even charge to drive into a particularly congested part of Boston, as drivers do in central London and soon will in lower Manhattan?
In the past few weeks, the House and the Senate have approved transportation bond bills with language tucked in the back that would create this “special commission on mobility pricing,” a catchall phrase that encompasses not just the roads but also the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and regional bus systems. While there are some minor differences to be hashed out in conference committee negotiations by the end of the month, such as exactly who gets appointed to this commission, the House and Senate already agree on the broad strokes of the bill.
Among those expected to get a commission seat is Jim Rooney, the chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has made the legislation one of its top priorities this year.
“This is far better than lurching from crisis to crisis,” Rooney said. “We’ve created this hodgepodge of nonstrategic pricing, [just] raising enough money to get us through the moment.”
The commission’s mission: make recommendations on equitable pricing changes for roads and public transportation. (Rooney, for example, likes the idea of an affordable flat rate for commuter rail fares to make it easier for workers to live in areas with less expensive housing.) In particular, members would study congestion pricing — toll rates based on the time of day or amount of traffic. The bill specifically calls for scenarios that fit an experimental federal program for variable pricing, a carveout to the general ban on states installing new tolls on federal highways. Other topics the panel would need to tackle include the impact on vehicle emissions, and on operation and maintenance costs. The measure requires the commission to report back by July 1, 2023, with recommendations to the Legislature and no more than five “mobility pricing” plans.
“We need to think of how we are funding our capital investments and how we are managing our soul-crushing congestion,” said Josh Ostroff, interim director of advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.
The idea of studying more tolling options has been kicked around on Beacon Hill for years but previously has never gone far.
Adding toll charges to new roads or creating congestion-based pricing really only became technically feasible with the arrival of the electronic gantries that replaced human toll-takers about six years ago. Political feasibility is an entirely different story.
The idea of raising the state’s 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax is a divisive one, as is expanding tolls. In early 2021, Governor Charlie Baker torpedoed a section of a transportation bill that would have created a similar congestion-pricing commission. At the time, the governor said it was too soon since the start of the pandemic to draw conclusions about future driver behavior. It’s unclear whether Baker would veto the language this time around. All a spokeswoman for Baker would say about the matter is that he “will carefully review any legislation that reaches his desk.”
If state officials seriously consider broadening where and how tolls are collected, the libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute will likely be among the critics. Executive director Jim Stergios said he’s concerned about adding to the state’s already opaque funding system for transportation — with its variety of “tax and fee schemes,” as he describes it — and about the possibility of singling out lower-income drivers who don’t have flexible schedules.
Supporters of the legislation point to numerous reasons to shake up the existing system: to fund long-overdue improvements to roads and trains, to ensure some communities aren’t stuck paying for more than their fair share, to make up for a slowdown in gas tax revenue as electric cars gradually replace gas-powered ones. They note that the state is under pressure to curb carbon emissions from the transportation sector, with a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions across all sectors by 2050.
“This is a great opportunity to lay out the facts and the reality of the situation, and look for recommendations for how we can prepare ourselves for a 21st-century transportation system,” said Senator Brendan Crighton, a Democrat from Lynn who co-chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee. “It’s expensive to keep up with wear and tear from winters and harsh weather. We need to keep our economy running. If we’re not having these hard conversations now, I think we’re going to regret it a few years from now.”
The gas tax has already taken a hit — likely from the shift to remote office work during the COVID-19 pandemic, not electric cars. Before the pandemic, the tax typically brought in between $640 million and $680 million a year. The number dropped to $611 million in the 12 months that ended in June 2020 and $567 million the following year. (Gas tax collections were approaching $600 million for the fiscal year that just ended, but the number for June is not yet publicly available.)
State lawmakers last week agreed on a separate climate bill that, among other things, increases incentives to encourage buying electric vehicles. The bill also establishes a council to figure out how to best deploy electric-vehicle charging stations, with an aim of completely ending the sale in state of gas-powered cars by the end of 2035.
“If the gas tax is a fading resource relative to maintaining and supporting our infrastructure, you’ve got to find a way to come up with an alternative resource,” said Rick Dimino, the chief executive of the A Better City business group. “This is a hard thing but we need to get our arms around it.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.