MBTA woes fuel I-93 border-toll talk?

By Neal J. Riley, The Lowell Sun

BOSTON – In the face of proposed MBTA service cuts and fare hikes, the contentious issue of charging tolls on Interstate 93 at the New Hampshire border is revving up once again on Beacon Hill.

State Rep. James Miceli, D-Wilmington, a member of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said talk of new tolls on I-93 has been “floated” in the Statehouse in recent weeks. But he has not heard a specific proposal from the Patrick administration or committee members.

“It isn’t being seriously considered, but things have a way of changing overnight,” he said.

A move to tolls could be encouraged by the angry public response to an MBTA plan to cut weekend and evening transit service and hike fares as much as 43 percent to cover a $161 million budget deficit for next year.

At a meeting in Medford City Hall last week held by the Legislature’s MBTA caucus, one constituent suggested using open-road tolling to help make up the debt, according to caucus Chairman Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington.

Open-road tolling, which uses an electronic system instead of toll booths, has not been proposed by the caucus, according to Garballey. But he said he was not willing to rule it out as a way to raise revenue.

“It is our belief that nothing should be off the table,” Garballey said. “We have to make sure that services aren’t cut… when it comes to the commuter rail.”

But Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said her agency is not considering the use of open-road tolling to address the T deficit this year.

“It’s just not on anybody’s agenda,” she said.

In 2009, a group of legislators from Massachusetts and New Hampshire banded together to oppose a proposed toll on I-93 in Salem, N.H. Gov. Deval Patrick also expressed interest in a toll at the border at that time, but none was ever constructed.

Miceli said he voted against a sweeping 2009 bill that consolidated several state transportation agencies into the Department of Transportation because he failed to get assurances that there would be no new tolls on I-93.

“We just can’t go that route,” he said. “People right now are still hurting, we’re still in a recession, and now you start taxing transportation, gas, things of that nature, it’s just making it impossible to exist financially.”

Garballey said House Speaker Robert DeLeo sent a clear message when he declared in his speech to representatives last week that the House budget will not rely on new taxes and fees.

“I’m not proposing new taxes or fees, but I will not tolerate service cuts,” Garballey said.

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