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Talking Points

Governor Baker weighs test of off-peak toll discounts

Anyone stuck in Mass. Pike traffic might empty out their wallets in return for freedom.
Anyone stuck in Mass. Pike traffic might empty out their wallets in return for freedom.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Anyone stuck in Mass. Pike traffic might empty out their wallets in return for freedom.

Commuters in many other cities already have that option: Tolls that vary by time of day are increasingly being put to use elsewhere, as transponders replace toll-collectors. But congestion pricing hasn’t been tried here yet.

That might change. Legislative leaders just included language in their new state budget that would test congestion pricing — along the Pike, the tunnels, or the Tobin Bridge. The program would provide 25 percent-plus discounts to spur certain commuters to drive in off-peak hours, with a goal of reducing traffic in peak times.

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One twist: This test couldn’t result in toll increases for other drivers, unlike many similar programs. That could mean as much as $100,000 in foregone revenue — depending on the number of participants, the location and time of the pilot, and the size of the discount. The legislation leaves these variables up to the state Department of Transportation.

Now it’s Governor Charlie Baker’s turn. The party line: He will carefully review any legislation that comes to his desk. But Baker sounded skeptical in a WAAF radio interview today. He says a modest discount would do little to change commuting patterns, and he’s opposed to any big disparities in toll prices. He didn’t take issue with the description of this idea as a “tax grab.” Yes, the state would take in less money now. But a congestion-pricing system might be used to raise revenue for roads and mass transit down the line.

Chris Dempsey, of Transportation for Massachusetts, remains undaunted. Just getting some cars off the road at rush hour makes a big difference, he says, as evidenced by the faster flow in summer months. Baker knows people are frustrated with all the gridlock. But if he vetoes this plan, we may have to settle for vacations to serve as our relief valve for now.

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.