Through all the politically-inspired changes in the executive offices of the Mass. Turnpike Authority, the agency has maintained a blind spot when it came to its customers. The agency took care of itself first, primarily by ensuring a steady flow of toll dollars into its coffers, never acknowledging the complaints from toll-payers that the system is fundamentally unfair. That, at least, has changed.
Through all the politically-inspired changes in the executive offices of the Mass. Turnpike Authority, the agency has maintained a blind spot when it came to its customers. The agency took care of itself first, primarily by ensuring a steady flow of toll dollars into its coffers, never acknowledging the complaints from toll-payers that the system is fundamentally unfair.
That, at least, has changed.
"Through a combination of costs imposed on the Turnpike and through toll policy decisions made by the Turnpike we have an unbalanced and inequitable condition," Transportation Secretary and Pike Board Chairman Bernard Cohen said last week.
The unfair burden on those driving regularly from MetroWest and Central Massachusetts into Boston stems from a string of political decisions: The Pike's move to keep the tolls even after initial construction bonds were paid off; Gov. Bill Weld's removal of the tolls west of Westfield and his campaign-inspired demolition of a tollbooth in Newton; deep discounts on bridge and tunnel tolls for residents of certain Boston neighborhoods; and - most significantly - legislation that split the finances of the Pike at Rte. 128 and saddled eastern Pike toll-payers with a growing share of the cost of building Boston's Big Dig.
How big a share? According to the Pike's toll equity working group, the Big Dig eats up 58 cents of every dollar collected at tollbooths east of Rte. 128.
That injury to east/west commuters is accompanied by an insult: North/south commuters on I-93, who actually drive through the Big Dig tunnels and have seen their commute measurably improved, pay no tolls at all.
These complaints are familiar to Pike commuters who have reached ever deeper in their pockets over the last decade. What's new is that the Turnpike Authority and its chairman, the state's top transportation official, are finally admitting it.
But whether the Pike can fix the inequity is another matter. The Pike can restore the tolls in Newton and in the Berkshires, but even that may not provide enough revenue for the cash-strapped Pike to avoid raising tolls yet again on MetroWest drivers or to preserve the modest discounts FastLane users now receive.
Only the Legislature can correct the gravest inequities: The formula for paying off Big Dig bonds, the Boston resident discounts, and the lack of tolls on I-93 or other highways are out of the Pike board's hands.
"If the tollpayers see the information and they get upset about it, then maybe something can be done by the state Legislature," Pike Board member Judy Pagliuca said, especially when they figure out that the toll increase that took effect in January will soon be followed by more toll hikes, perhaps this year.
Little can be done to restore fairness in transportation funding without the Legislature's leaders making it a priority, but they aren't the only ones who need to show leadership. Gov. Deval Patrick, who has carefully acknowledged the perception of toll inequity without admitting that the inequity is real, must step up to the plate as well.
The test of leadership is in fixing unfairness, not just admitting that it exists.