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Shirley Leung

Cautious Charlie orders up his favorite remedy: a study

Last week, Governor Charlie Baker got spooked by a bipartisan proposal to tinker with toll rates and rejected the item out of the budget.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2018

Cautious Charlie is baaaaack. Oh, how I did not miss you.

Last week, our governor got spooked by a bipartisan proposal to tinker with toll rates and sent it back to the Legislature.

Mind you, this would have been a temporary pilot, overseen by his own Transportation Department, that would have decreased toll prices during off-peak hours for drivers.

No way. A voter might think the discount was unfair to drivers who can’t travel off rush hour. Don’t you know it’s an election year? Instead, the Republican governor did what he often does on issues with even a whiff of controversy: He called for a study.


That’s what Baker did with Boston’s proposal to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. But here’s the difference between now and then: Hosting the Games was a highly charged topic. Reducing traffic on the roads? We can all agree on that.

The Baker administration hasn’t done a comprehensive study on traffic, which is surprising given that everyone complains how bad it is. One report ranks us seventh-worst in the country, with the average driver spending 60 hours stuck in traffic during the year.

“We’ve been really focused on making the T work better,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack explained, speaking about why the state hasn’t done a deep dive on highway congestion.

Fair enough. A reliable T is important because that will give people the confidence to get out of their cars and take public transit. Still, fixing the T doesn’t give the administration a pass on tackling traffic.

“We understand how frustrating congestion is to people and how important it is to reduce congestion,” Pollack said. “The right way is to take a step back and really understand what is driving congestion.”

As for the pilot that Baker rejected, Pollack couldn’t see how it could work without the state losing money. “A time of day toll discount is not really congestion pricing,” she said.


She’s got a point. Congestion pricing is charging higher tolls at peak times. And it’s one of the most effective ways to reduce traffic when you make tolls more expensive, transportation experts say.

The Baker administration hasn’t done a comprehensive study on traffic. One report ranks us seventh-worst in the country, with the average driver spending 60 hours stuck in traffic during the year.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The Baker administration knows something about playing with toll rates. In an 81-page study released in 2016, the state modeled ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars, including a scenario with congestion pricing.

The report looked at what would happen if the state raised prices by 25 cents and 50 cents on existing toll roads in the Boston region, as well as applying a toll to all congested highways. The scenario paired congestion pricing with other policies, such as giving drivers incentives to buy electric vehicles and increasing parking rates.

The upshot: When you increase the price of driving, people drive less and at less congested times of the day, according to Eric Bourassa, director of transportation at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, whom I asked to read the technical report.

Bourassa’s group is part of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations that supports the toll pilot. He thinks the pilot would have answered some key questions about how variable tolls would work here.

“What we need to study is the price point at which commuter behavior changes,” Bourassa said. “If the price point is low, that may be more politically palatable. If the price point is high, then at least we know what it takes.”


Local transportation advocates weren’t the only ones clamoring for a pilot. Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of at least three studies on congestion pricing, was excited to see what would happen. Charging more is a well-tested concept, but not as much analysis has been done on charging less.

“Massachusetts is a natural place to try this,” said Manville, who grew up in Reading, where his parents still live. “It’s the kind of place that can be bold and do an experiment like this.”

Few places in the world have successfully implemented so-called dynamic pricing on previously free roads because the idea is politically radioactive. For years, New York politicians have tried and failed to come up with a congestion pricing scheme that everyone could support.

Which makes it all the more baffling why Baker wouldn’t approve just a test of discounts. At least it wouldn’t have raised costs for rush-hour drivers.

He was thisclose to trying something new, but he got afraid of his own shadow. Instead of seizing on the chance to be a leader in transportation, the governor wants us to wait another year for solutions.

Stew on that the next time you’re stuck on the Pike.

Update: Lawmakers, in a last-minute rush before the close of their session on Tuesday, restored the discount toll pilot and returned it to Baker in its original, legislatively passed form. The governor has 10 days to decide what to do.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.