It is fundamentally unfair to require some drivers to pay tolls every time they get on the highway, while others ride for free.
The issue of tolls on Massachusetts highways has been studied over and over again. One perennial conclusion of these studies comes as no surprise to MetroWest residents who depend on the Mass. Pike to get them from here to there: It is fundamentally unfair to require some drivers to pay tolls every time they get on the highway, while others ride for free.
The latest group to wrestle with this inequity is the Mass. Turnpike Authority's "Toll Equity Working Group," which last week produced an interim report on the equity issue. It acknowledged that the problem runs from the western end of the Pike, which is a free highway for exits 1 through 6, to the eastern end, where it meets the Big Dig tunnels, which are "free" for those coming in from the north and south, paid for by those who drive east and west.
Other inequities are less well-known. Residents of some Boston neighborhoods get to use Boston bridges and tunnels for a discounted 40-cent toll. Nearly 4,000 drivers, including state police and current and retired Pike workers, have been given FastLane transponders that allow them unlimited free travel on the Pike. The "Parcel 7 Garage" gives customers of some North End businesses the best parking rate in town, subsidized by Pike tollpayers.
The "Working Group" catalogued these inequities and presented Pike Board members with a list of 37 possible solutions. But neither the working group nor Pike Chairman Bernard Cohen, who received the report, would go so far as endorse the solutions, or even elevate then to the status of proposals. That may come later.
A look at the "options" demonstrates why Cohen and the Pike are keeping their options open. Some are vague. "Discuss revenue options" is one suggestion. In response to complaints that Pike tollpayers pay more than their share of the Big Dig, the report suggests the Pike "explain" that Pike tollpayers "only" pay 12 percent of total Big Dig costs. Feel better?
Some of the options are politically difficult. The most obvious, adding tolls to I-93 north and south of Boston, is guaranteed to raise howls of protest. That, along with even minor reforms like the Boston resident discount program, would require action by the Legislature the Pike Board can't deliver.
That goes as well for the most equitable option of all: Raise the gas tax enough to pay for maintenance on all the state's highways and eliminate Pike tolls altogether - or at least those on highways, like the original Pike, already built and paid for. With retail gas prices setting new records nearly every day, state legislators aren't eager to push them higher.
The most likely candidates for action on the Pike group's list are those that involve restoring tolls where they were previously eliminated: Exits 1 through 6 in western Mass., and exit 16 in West Newton. While those reforms make sense, they ignore the larger issue of tolling one highway and not the others.
If that's the best the Pike can do, we can expect more toll inequity - and more studies - for many years to come.