Turnpike tolls: Real issue, but at an odd time

GOVERNOR PATRICK has raised an important question about the future of the Massachusetts Turnpike — albeit at an odd time. As soon as 2017, the state could opt to eliminate tolls west of Route 128. That would elate many commuters, but it would also cost the state $135 million a year in revenue. Last month, Patrick proposed adding a provision in the Legislature’s transportation plan that would automatically trigger a gas-tax hike of at least 3 cents a gallon if the tolls came down. Although removing tolls is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Patrick’s plan would put in place a contingency to offset any lost revenue.

Patrick’s idea should be a starting point for a discussion of the Pike’s future — but it’s not the only solution. Under state law, the tolls can’t come down unless the road is “deemed to be in good condition and repair,” a standard so loose that future administrations could probably leave tolls in place for years. The Legislature could also change the law, explicitly allowing tolls to remain. Those are debates lawmakers should have.

That discussion, however, is no reason to hold up the whole transportation plan, and Patrick’s threat to veto legislation that doesn’t include his Pike proposal is unwarranted. Patrick is clearly unhappy with the overall legislation Beacon Hill produced, and may be seizing belatedly on the Pike issue as a way of registering his disapproval. He is certainly not alone in believing the Legislature didn’t go far enough; this editorial page has backed much more extensive spending on highways, bridges, and transit. But it’s hard to see how taking a hard line on the Pike’s financing many years in the future will lead to better investments now.