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Toll discount back in play in Massachusetts

A tolling gantry on the Mass. Pike.
A tolling gantry on the Mass. Pike. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Lawmakers have resuscitated an effort to tinker with toll rates on Massachusetts highways with a last-minute parliamentary maneuver that rebuked Governor Charlie Baker.

The governor must now decide whether to again snub the Legislature, or move forward on an idea he’s already criticized publicly.

In the final hours of the Legislature’s formal sessions Tuesday night, lawmakers rejected Baker’s suggestion the state conduct a broad study of traffic congestion and instead reaffirmed a pilot program to provide toll discounts to drivers who commuter outside rush hour.

“We need to consider how to use our roads more efficiently,” said state Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, who leads the chamber’s transportation policy. “The time for studies is over. We demand action.”

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The original toll discount plan was in the state budget passed earlier in July. But Baker sent the measure back to lawmakers with the suggestion to conduct a broader study of traffic problems.

The Legislature’s rebuke of Baker might end up being only symbolic. The governor has 10 days to decide whether to accept or reject the discount. And if he nixes it again, as his past comments suggest he might, the measure would be dead for the year, as the Legislature will be out of session and unable to override his rejection.

The proposal would test a discount of at least 25 percent starting next March. Lawmakers left much of the decision-making to the state transportation department, including which roads to test it on, and the actual rate of the discount.

So-called congestion pricing programs usually involve increasing tolls during peak hours, not discounts in off-hours such as the Massachusetts idea. Transportation experts say these kinds of toll increases are a reliable way to reduce traffic — but they’re also less politically palatable than a discount.

Baker has said he doubts a small discount would have much of an impact on traffic, and added that he wouldn’t want to impose a toll increase during rush hour. Meanwhile, some critics have argued the discount is just a prelude to an eventual toll hike.

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Spokespeople for Baker declined to say Tuesday night how he would decide.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.