Rep: Give WMass drivers discounts on tolls

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – A lawmaker from the Berkshires is pushing a new proposal to create a discounted annual toll pass for people who drive the Massachusetts Turnpike frequently.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox, said the tolls going back up along the western part of the turnpike in October created a financial hardship for many people who travel long distances along the Pike to get to work. The tolls were reinstated at Exits 1 through 6 – 17 years after the Weld administration dismantled them.

Residents in the western part of the state pay hundreds of dollars every month to get to work, Pignatelli said, adding it is not uncommon for someone living in the Berkshires to travel to Springfield, or Albany, N.Y. to their jobs. The 45-minute ride from Exit 1 in West Stockbridge, near the New York border, to Exit 6 in Springfield, costs $1.75 each way.

The Legislature last year passed a transportation financing bill to fund projects that raised the state gas tax by 3 cents a gallon, tied future gas tax levels to inflation, required the reinstatement of the tolls, and raised taxes on tobacco products. The tax package delivered far less revenue that Gov. Deval Patrick had sought.

Pignatelli filed legislation (H 3758) that would allow non-commercial drivers to pay a discounted set fee for an annual pass that breaks the Pike tolls into different zoned prices, similar to the way a train ticket is priced. For example, zone 1 would encompass Exit 1 West Stockbridge through Exit 8, and cost $50 annually. Drivers could go through the tolls as many times as they want after buying the annual pass.

The annual pass would not be beneficial for every driver, Pignatelli said. “It’s all based on your driving habits,” he said.

Discounts for commuters are already available to drivers around Boston, Pignatelli argues, pointing to Charlestown and Chelsea residents who pay reduced tolls to drive over the Tobin Bridge, and East Boston residents who get discounted rates for the airport tunnels.

“Give other people in the state the same opportunity whose only mode of transportation to get to and from work is the Mass Turnpike,” he said.

The bill was considered by the Joint Committee on Transportation during a hearing last week. Secretary Richard Davey has said he does not favor discounted tolling rates.

Discounts for the Tobin Bridge and airport tunnels were instituted to alleviate the inconvenience of the Big Dig, Pignatelli said. “The Big Dig is over. The benefit is still there,” he said, adding he does not object to the discounts for Boston-area residents.

“We already have programs in place for discounted commuter rates. Just offer it to other people in the Commonwealth. It is fair. It is consistent,” Pignatelli said.

Pignatelli said he based the annual zoned toll pass on an existing commuter discount program that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation offers to drivers who carpool. Drivers who commute with two or more people can buy a tolling pass. “We just got rid of the passenger requirement,” he said.

Twenty-one lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, from all over the state have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Pignatelli envisions the toll pass eventually working for other highways as well.