, Newburyport, MA

April 12, 2013

Don't make taxpayers part of the solution

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Like a bad penny, the idea of expanding tolls on Massachusetts highways keeps turning up.

Our political leaders seem to be suffering under the delusion that it is not already expensive enough for working people to get to and from their jobs. So whenever there’s another transportation boondoggle to finance, we hear rumblings from Beacon Hill about raising the gas tax or adding new tolls or something entirely new, like the “vehicle miles traveled” tax.

All of it is designed to tighten the state’s chokehold on those who must work for a living and shake a few more coins out of their pockets.

So now, with Gov. Deval Patrick locked in battle with the Legislature over whether they will shake down taxpayers for another $1.9 billion or just a mere $500 million, we’re hearing once again about tolls on Interstate 93, the main north-south artery for commuters from the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.

Our local legislators should be unified in sending one message to the governor and legislative leadership: “Forget it.” Instead, even some of our normally reliable representatives have chosen this moment to go wobbly, to borrow a phrase from the late Margaret Thatcher.

State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, thinks tolls on I-93 could work, as long as they are part of a statewide expansion of tolling. Campbell would like to see the I-93 tolls near Route 128, where the traffic volume is heaviest.

“I do think it’s something the commonwealth needs to look at because it allows folks that use the system to be part of the solution,” she told reporter Douglas Moser.

Part of the solution? Massachusetts drivers already pay hefty gas taxes and excise taxes for what are arguably the most poorly maintained state and local roads in New England. They pay these taxes — as well as a heavy burden of income and sales taxes and a variety of other fees — to a state government seemingly determined to find ever more creative ways of wasting them. This is a state that, despite recent “reforms,” still hosts an alphabet soup of transportation-related bureaucracies where high-pay, do-little jobs are all too common.

In 2012, 45 percent of the operating budgets of MassDOT and the MBTA went to debt service. MassDOT is still paying salaries with borrowed money, borrowing $145 million in 2011 to meet operating expenses, according to a report from the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.

Let these bloated, inefficient bureaucracies get their own financial houses in order before coming to taxpayers to be “part of the solution.”

If the Bay State’s political leaders had any kind of track record of honesty and believability, their arguments might be more convincing. But their promises have never been kept. Tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike would go away once the road was paid for. They never did. The “Big Dig” was not going to divert money from other important highway projects and basic road maintenance across the state. It did, and continues to do so. Receipts from the gas tax have never been committed to fixing roads and have instead been diverted to the general fund.

Patrick and the leaders on Beacon Hill promise that, if we give them what they want, we’ll have great roads, highways and public transportation once more.

Given their track record, why should we believe them?