Senior adviser on policy, government, and community affairs for A Better City, a Greater Boston business organization
There is a crisis in our state’s transportation system. Greater Boston has one of the worst levels of traffic congestion in the nation, the MBTA struggles with safety and unreliable service, and roads and bridges throughout the state are in poor condition.
Massachusetts faces additional challenges as we reduce carbon emissions and transition to electric vehicles. This transition will eventually eliminate gas tax revenue and require new ways to meet our transportation and climate goals. A fresh look at highway tolling is necessary and should start by acknowledging the current approach is unfair.
For the past 60 years, drivers have paid tolls on the Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and the Boston Harbor tunnels. It costs at least $1 to drive into Boston on I-90 from the west, but it’s free to drive into Boston on I-93 from the north or south. Growing up in Lowell, tolls in Massachusetts were basically a foreign concept to me, but this experience is completely different from someone living in Metrowest, East Boston, or near Springfield.
Today’s tolling system is difficult to justify from a regional equity perspective.
We can expand tolling into new locations fairly by including discounts for low-income drivers and residents living near tolls. Expanding tolling and road pricing is not only about fixing a flawed system or raising revenue; it prepares us for the inevitable decline in gas tax from electric vehicles. The gas tax funds road maintenance, bridge repairs, and transit projects, so without a sustainable funding source, statewide transportation infrastructure will suffer.
The current system is old and unprepared for the future. Massachusetts is considered fourth-worst in the nation for bridge conditions with over 600 structurally deficient bridges, according to an August 2022 Mass Budget and Policy Center report. The MBTA faces a massive fiscal cliff for both its operating budget and capital plans. Major projects like electrifying our commuter rail system, the I-90 Allston multimodal project, and East-West rail are unfunded.
A comprehensive road pricing plan can support infrastructure projects that reduce traffic, improve air quality, and create better alternatives to driving. This would benefit drivers and non-drivers alike.
The status quo continues to leave drivers, residents, and our region seeing red. Massachusetts should move forward with expanded tolling to solve existing problems and prevent our transportation crisis from getting worse.
Republican candidate for governor in 2022, Wrentham resident
It is time to stop treating drivers as if they are the cash cow for the Commonwealth. Workers should not be penalized for commuting to their jobs, especially with skyrocketing inflation costs.
Boston is a commuter city. Hundreds of thousands of people commute into it every day. Half of them drive a car. A significant portion of these drivers are not the well-heeled Bostonians who can afford to live in the city. While policymakers may salivate at a new revenue source under the premise of reducing traffic, more tolling will simply act as a regressive tax on a middle class already struggling with the high costs of living here.
The argument is made that raising more toll revenue — either by adding tolls or instituting congestion pricing — will divert more commuters to mass transit. However, a state Commission on the Future of Transportation recommended congestion tolling — charging more during peak hours — be focused in areas where commuters can easily switch to rapid transit or multi-passenger modes of transportation. Some cities where congestion tolling has been implemented — London and Singapore, for example — have vaster and more reliable public transport networks than we do.
Instead of addressing traffic congestion by levying more taxes on our drivers, our state should require that the Department of Transportation and cities and towns reduce traffic through proven improvements. Among those are road widening, using smart light technology, ramp metering — installing lights on highway on-ramps to control traffic flow — and removing other interchange bottlenecks. Additional possibilities include allowing traffic on shoulders at specified times, faster response to traffic incidents, better construction coordination, and reduced stop lights on secondary arteries.
Those advocating for more transportation funding never explain why Massachusetts is ranked the 43rd worst in America for highway performance and cost effectiveness, according to the Reason Foundation. It said Massachusetts spends a greater percentage of our highway budget on administrative overhead than nearly every other state. We need to fix the waste before pouring more money into the system.
Charging commuters more to drive into the city will increase the costs of working and living in Boston, which will ultimately drive more citizens and job creators into the welcoming arms of other states anxious to have our citizens and their good jobs.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.