Globe Local

THE ARGUMENT

Should Massachusetts discount road and bridge tolls during off-peak hours?

Read two views and vote in our informal online poll.

YES

Chris Dempsey

Director, Transportation for Massachusetts; Brookline resident

Chris Dempsey.

Traffic congestion in Massachusetts is a costly problem that is getting worse. MassDOT should implement creative solutions like smarter tolling that have successfully reduced traffic in other parts of the country -- from Seattle, to Salt Lake City, to Miami.

Today, too many Massachusetts residents deal with soul-crushing commutes. The traffic data firm INRIX estimates that Boston-area drivers lose about $2,000 per year in wasted time and fuel while stuck in traffic. For a household with two drivers, that effectively translates to a $330 monthly congestion bill.

And it’s not just drivers who pay the price of traffic. Buses stuck in traffic mean people are late for school or work. Businesses have to pay higher shipping expenses to get their goods into Massachusetts, costs that are passed on to consumers. We also pay with poorer health: All that tailpipe pollution causes higher rates of asthma and heart disease.

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Traffic is a drain on our economy and our quality of life. But it does not have to be this way.

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Governor Charlie Baker, who has been willing to roll up his sleeves and tackle long-standing issues with the MBTA, should bring that same spirit of reform to our failing highways.

With smarter tolling, some drivers would pay less with off-peak tolls. But the biggest beneficiaries would actually be the drivers with the least flexibility. If it is important for you to be on the road at the busiest times, then you want that road to be as free from other cars as possible. By reducing peak-hour traffic, smarter tolling provides those without flexibility what they need and deserve: a better, faster, more reliable commute.

For smarter tolling to work, only a small fraction of drivers need to shift their trip. Traffic specialists tell us that getting just 5 percent of cars off the road reduces traffic by 20 percent.

A proposed pilot program to test the concept passed the Massachusetts Legislature this summer with strong support from both Democrats and Republicans, but was vetoed by Governor Baker. Smarter tolling could be an important tool in MassDOT’s congestion-fighting toolbox. Let’s give it a shot.

NO

Jim Lyons

State representative, Republican of Andover

Jim Lyons
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Who goes joyriding on the Mass. Turnpike or through the Harbor Tunnels during rush hour?

Not the working families of Andover, Tewksbury, Boxford, and North Andover, or other communities across the state.

Who willingly drives on costly toll roads when accessible “free” routes are conveniently available?

Not the hard-working taxpayers of Massachusetts, whose precious resources fund state roads and highways.

Our Commonwealth’s commuters are facing a radical proposal euphemistically described as discounting off peak travel. A more accurate description might be “overcharging workers forced to drive in the rush-hour commute.” The unfair scheme effectively surcharges workers during rush-hour traffic; when implemented elsewhere, it has led to peak hour toll hikes. It turns state revenue collection decisively against everyone without flexibility in their schedules. This inequitable tolling tactic completely ignores working families most stung by high toll costs.

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Off peak discounting places the burden upon taxpaying workers, especially the less well-paid and less powerful. We might call it “tolling the victim.”

If anyone deserves a toll discount, it’s the working parents who drive to and from jobs to support their families, keep the economy growing, and pay taxes that maintain community services. Unlike highly-paid bureaucrats and upper-echelon administrators, most workers lack the luxury of setting their own hours and waltzing into job sites during preferential off peak hours. They work in schools and hospitals, restaurants and hotels, offices and factories, retail and small business, fast food and the construction trades.

These hard-working taxpayers have no control over when they arrive at work, or when they leave. Every one of them would gladly set their own schedules to avoid traffic jams and the frustrations of another rush-hour commute. Every one of them would happily schedule work hours around their children’s schooling, soccer games, and family events. Every one of them would willingly take advantage of discounted “congestion pricing.”

This out-of-touch scheme reduces tolling to the most regressive method of revenue collection. It hammers working parents and taxpaying families and discriminates against those locked into inflexible schedules.

Sometimes bureaucrats and politicians have to be reminded: There are values higher than cold, calculated efficiency, and those higher values must guide the decision-making of lawmakers.

This is an informal poll, not a scientific survey. Please vote only once.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.