By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick plans to recommend switching to an electronic tolling system in Massachusetts, embracing new technology that would cost about $100 million and result in more than 320 toll collectors losing their jobs.
On the heels of a Boston Herald report yesterday morning, Patrick and Transportation Secretary Richard Davey confirmed the administration’s toll plan and said they were not looking immediately to raise toll amounts or institute new tolls as part of their long-term transportation funding strategy.
Patrick described the plan, which he said his administration will discuss in greater detail early next month, as a step to create a more “efficient and modern” highway system and help to eliminate congestion on the Massachusetts Turnpike where drivers for years have experienced lengthy delays when traveling around the holidays.
“I think it’s going to save us some money and above all make the commute and the use of the Pike more convenient,” Patrick said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he always has concerns about laying off workers, but also said measures such as the governor’s tolling proposal might be necessary to address needs in the state’s transportation system.
“We’ve got a transportation system that’s probably going to need — I’m told at this point anyway — some $1 billion so, as I told some of the members, I’m open to any type of suggestions as we move forward,” DeLeo told reporters yesterday after meeting with Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray.
DeLeo said he knows any solution will have to not only address the financing of the MBTA, but also infrastructure investment needs in all regions of the state. He said he has reached out to business leaders to solicit feedback, and is still in the process of listening to their revenue suggestions.
“Anytime that we’re talking about the need to lay off people, so to speak, that gives me great concern, especially in difficult economic times. On the other hand, what I read about or heard about the plan of the governor was he was stating he wasn’t going to lay off people as much as they would leave according to their retirement and what not,” DeLeo said. “But we’ve got a very serious problem in terms of how we’re going to solve a $1 billion shortfall in our transportation system and again, for the sake of the economy of Massachusetts, we’ve got to bring this up to the new century.”
Speaking to reporters at Logan Airport, Patrick said the $100 million investment would pay for itself over a three-year period, and Davey said an automated toll system would enable motorists to pay their tolls while traveling at highway speeds rather than having to stop to pay cash or slow down for FastLane.
Though Patrick said he has no immediate plans to install new north-south tolls on Interstate 93 or put new tolls on the borders of New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island or Connecticut, the governor did not rule out such measures in the future.
“I’ve thought about and we’ve talked about a number of those strategies. We’re trying to come to rest on a plan that we phase in over a number of years and you’re going to have a wait a few weeks until we talk about all of them,” Patrick said.
State law requires Patrick to present the Legislature in early January with a long-term plan to address the state’s longstanding gap between revenues available and revenues needed to maintain the existing public transportation system and make new investments.
“We’re looking at a number of different options, and one of them is electronic or all electronic tolling,” Patrick said.
Sen. Thomas McGee, a Lynn Democrat and co-chairman of the Committee on Transportation, said his focus remains on continuing the conversation about the type of transportation system people in Massachusetts want and how much it will cost to pay for it.
“I’m not going to comment on open road tolling now. I think it’s premature to discuss,” McGee said at Logan Airport, where he was attending a celebration with Patrick, Davey and Congressman Michael Capuano about a new JetBlue hangar where the airline plans to hire 25 percent more technicians to repair and service its fleet of planes.
Davey said the cost of installing the technology required to move to an all-electronic system of toll collection would be taken from existing toll revenues with no plans now to propose an increase in the current fees.
The secretary also ruled out an immediate shift to charging drivers per-mile-traveled. “The first step is to improve what we have today,” he said.
Davey said the state currently spends $45 million to $55 million a year on toll collection, and takes in more than $300 million in revenue from the tolls.
“I can tell you the cost of moving in the direction of all-electronic tolling would pay for itself with the electronic tolling by a reduction in operating costs in about three years’ time and if we don’t do it, we will probably have to spend almost that much or more in capital improvement in the toll booths so it’s a good investment,” Patrick said.
The administration took the initial step toward electronic tolling by inserting language in a new three-year union contract to begin eliminating manual toll collectors by 2015. Davey said about 80 percent to 90 percent of the state’s 410 full- and part-time toll collectors could be laid off as part of the transition, and there were discussions underway about retraining the workers for new jobs inside and outside of state government.
Patrick said his hope was to implement the change with “as dignified and soft a landing for people as possible.” “The idea is to try to do it as efficiently and reasonably as possible, taking into account the impact on people and also the practical ability to get it done,” Patrick said.
Davey also said the tolls on the western turnpike due to expire in January 2017 would be “part of our financing discussion in January,” but did not elaborate on whether the administration might seek an extension.