Wednesday, September 12, 2007

That's One Way to Look At It

Subtitle: Commonwealth drivers now feeling pinch of transportation deficit too. What's in question is the $20 B or so first reported on about a week ago, and brought to the forefront again by both Channel 7 News and Fox 25 News [I'm citing both of them now, don't bug me later]. Our fledgling Governor Deval Patrick wants to reduce that debt by raising existing tolls; adding tolls to other interstates, especially I-93; raising the gas tax; starting up a "congestion tax"; and privatizing state roadways. Let me give insight:

Tolls work. But you already knew my stance on that issue--I only mentioned it here, here, here and here. If anything, I think the first step in this money-producing initiative, is to return the tolls to the Western Mass. portions of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which were taken away. I've said it before and I'll say it again--the MassPike was a toll road through and through and should remain so. Western Mass. drivers felt like they were simply lining the pockets of Eastern Mass. roadway projects (Central Mass. is just this barren wasteland of small cities and big towns that you pass through to get from Eastern cities to Western farms and vice-versa), but, with the tolls eliminated, now Eastern Mass. is shouldering the cost of the entire Turnpike--which isn't right either. Unfortunately, however, returning the cost of paying for the Western Mass. portion of the Turnpike to Western Mass. residents isn't on the agenda. Nope, step 1 is to raise the tolls on the Eastern-Central half, in addition to the Sumner and Ted Williams Tunnels and the Tobin Bridge... to pay for all state roads. Sound familiar--such was the case, beginning in the early '90's and ending December 31, 2006, where people not living on the surface portions of the Green Line cried fowl because why should people on the Green Line go Outbound for free. So what did the MBTA, trying to make things fair and equitable for all do--return things to their original state: all pay! Take a hint.

But, back to reality, current tolls may be going up. And?!... One woman on Channel 7 News bellyached about the excess time of having to take local roads to avoid the Tobin Bridge because she doesn't like paying the $3.00 to get into the city everyday. I lived in Chelsea for a little over a year; I did the same thing; I still do the same thing, making my weekly pilgrimage to the Chelsea Market Basket. And?!... As I mentioned before, tolls aren't meant to separate the rich from the poor, they're meant to support the road/bridges/tunnels that they are on. In case you haven't noticed, chunks of concrete are falling off the Tobin Bridge; lane closures are way past being over. Clearly that thing needs substantial funding, and that funding can't come from reaching even deeper into an already very dry well of transportation funding. The same goes for the aged Sumner Tunnel and leaky Ted Williams. All costs go up--here's a tissue.

As far as adding tolls to other roads, well, I think you already know what I'm going to say: why not. Forget wayward manhole covers--there are sections of I-93 in Somerville and Medford, just as an example, were if you hit the road in the right spot, you will literally bounce into the next lane; the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the bounce. Adding new tolls is always the "anything but that" concept, but really, do we really want I-93 looking like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278).

Let me digress because this is a good analogy. I-278, like I-93, was "rammed through established [city] neighborhoods"; the former by non other than the anti-public transit, mostly anti-commercial vehicles, lobbyist Robert Moses. Some might call Deval Patrick the anti-Robert Moses with all his pro-toll, pro-gas tax and pro-congestion tax proposals that seem to stick it to Commonwealth drivers all the while he continues to push his desire to restoreg public transit (Commuter Rail) to his constituents in New Bedford. The reality is that he's a the first make-sense Governor we've had in a while when it comes to roadway funding (borrowing only makes more debt, as fun as borrowing is), and a just-slightly-above-average-sense Governor when it comes to transit initiatives (read: Old Colony Railroad restorations can wait--rapid transit and the buses have been, are and will be hurting and will be suffering without adequate funding).

This brings me up to raising the gas tax: people want to know where this money is going to go and what is the real intention. Is the increased tax going toward roadways, public transit or the general pool of transportation funding? Is it going to be raised to discourage driving or is it simply to raise funds? Neither transit advocates nor roadway advocates can do more than speculate on what's spinning in Patrick's ahead (train wheels or tires, hah), and we may never know for sure. Overall: sure! Have I told you how much I like my bicycle (hint: I really do!).

The same goes with a congestion tax. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is already toying with the idea, seriously, in Midtown Manhattan. Governor Patrick may follow suit over certain sections of road in the Greater Boston Area. Yet, just like for the gas tax, there are unanswered questions regarding where funds are to go and who's really getting squeezed. Again, sure (see bicycle comment above).

As far as privatization, let me invoke a phrase used a few years ago when the MBTA Bus System was in such a fiscal crisis that there was talk of privatizing it: " Keep the Public in Public Transportation." Now, let me squash the phrase as it applies to keeping the public in public roads. The truth is we really don't know what's going to happen in the long run. Of course, in the short term it will take the heat off the state to maintain the roads, saving millions. Can we be certain that private firms won't try to charge more on their then-controlled toll roads and/or add more tolls in order to have bigger returns. Gee, I don't know--do we live in a capitalistic society?! Solution: the state can sell rights to the roads, it doesn't have to sell the right to regulate toll prices. That's something the people can vote on (and vote out and screw everybody over like the end of rent control). End of discussion.

Pack up and leave "Taxachusetts" before the going gets rougher... or costlier--that's one way to look at it. Another is to sit back, take a chill pill, and see what actually develops. Almost no portion of travel public transit in the Commonwealth is "free"--motorists will eventually have to pony up to travel on state roads, in addition to paying taxes, as well.

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