Democratic lawmakers in the Berkshires have voiced their support for a transportation budget that would reinstate tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike from the New York border through Springfield.
Lawmakers in the state House and Senate this week approved a compromise transportation bill that accomplishes many of the goals sought by lawmakers in the Berkshires, including forward funding the state’s regional transit authorities and eliminating borrowing to pay for the salaries for state highway workers. The bill would reinstate the tolls on the Mass Pike between exits 1 and 6 to pay for the initiatives.
The tolls were originally lifted in 1996 under then- Republican Governor William Weld . Democratic State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, whose district includes exits 1 in West Stockbridge and 2 in Lee, said that the state is losing money to tourists from out of state traveling to the Berkshires, particularly in the summer months.
Pignatelli also said that his constituents prefer traveling on the Mass Pike because it is faster and well maintained.
In addition to reinstating the tolls to pay for the $800 million transportation bill, the state’s gasoline tax would be raised by 3 cents to 26.5 cents per gallon, and taxes on cigarettes would be raised from $1 to $3.51 per pack.
Pignatelli said that he was concerned about how the increase in the tobacco tax could affect convenience and other stores in border communities.
Democratic State Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield said that reinstatement of the tolls would also be the most fair way to pay for the transportation plan, and said alternatives including further hikes in the gas tax would especially hurt the average driver in Western Massachusetts.
Included in the Senate’s transportation bill was a provision that would ensure revenues collected along exits 1 through 6 would stay in the four counties of Western Massachusetts. Downing said he was disappointed to see that the provision didn’t make the compromise bill.
While the compromise bill does not include the provision to keep tolls dedicated to local transportation projects, Democratic Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, also of Pittsfield, said that she was pleased to see language included to increase oversight over where revenues are spent.
"A commission is being set up that will be chaired by the House and Senate chairs of Revenue in which they are going to be studying tax fairness across the commonwealth to try to get a real good grip on what people in different regions in the state pay in taxes and what they get for their taxes," said Farley-Bouvier.
Farley-Bouvier said the she hopes the findings would be able to give the western part of the state a stronger voice in future discussions on revenue.
Despite the bills’ language to reinstate the tolls, prior state law would eliminate all tolls on the Mass Pike west of Route 128 in Weston in 2017. Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement that he “cannot accept the bill in its current form”, and said he would seek an amendment to retain the tolls beyond 2017.
House Minority Leader Republican Bradley Jones issued a statement rejecting any increase in taxes to pay for transportation and said “taxpayers have the ability to reverse this crippling tax at the ballot in November of 2014.”