By Joshua Resnek
Since becoming the speaker of the House, Winthrop’s Bobby DeLeo has railed against the toll hikes and tunnel fares that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority wanted to impose upon us.
The tunnel toll hike alone was going to make the payment to pass under the Mystic River $7, as outrageous an increase as ever suggested by a group of bureaucrats who couldn’t run a corner store.
The increases were supposed to go into effect July 1.
“No way,” DeLeo told the directors of the Turnpike Authority and his colleagues in government.
DeLeo swung into action as only a speaker can to reverse the Draconian increases sought in tunnel fares and tolls.
As most North Shore residents would agree, it was the stuff of miracles that DeLeo was instrumental in not only saving the current toll structure but in putting to an end the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which stood as a monument to mismanagement.
Here’s what didn’t happen on July 1. The harbor tunnel tolls didn’t increase. Not only that, the once powerful MTA now faces extinction.
The timetable below illustrates DeLeo’s key role in stopping the disproportionate and excessive toll increase.
On November 14, 2008 – The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority voted to raise tunnel fees from $3.50 to $7, effective February 9. “We were left with a set of very bad choices. There was no rabbit that we could pull out of a hat today to deal with the fact that the Turnpike Authority is in dire financial straits.
It does not have the money to cover its capital costs, its operating costs, pay the debt. Those are not things that we had anything to do with but they are things that we inherited,” board member Bernard Cohen said.
Privately, DeLeo was shocked that such drastic increases could be suggested, much less imposed. But he was in the middle of a political battle to become the speaker.
On January 28, 2009 — DeLeo became speaker of the House, setting in motion a chain of events which would lead to his blocking the toll increases. This was his battle to fight, and as the new leader of the House, it was the House’s battle to win.
Now that he was speaker, he understood he could be responsible for creating policy and denying a bad public policy the chance to exist.
After Governor Patrick’s release of an elaborate transportation plan, which included a proposed gas tax as high as19 cents, Speaker DeLeo quietly set out to find alternatives.
Throughout March, DeLeo worked to bring all three principals – Governor Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and himself – together to announce a plan to halt the toll increases.
On March 19, 2009 – Governor Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Murray agreed to delay increases in turnpike tolls.
The toll hikes were planned to go into effect on March 29. Governor Patrick, Speaker DeLeo and Senate President Murray pledged to pass a transportation reform by July 1. All of this occurred against a backdrop of vast and rising public outrage and stupefaction about a state authority gone wild.
On March 24, 2009 – The Turnpike Authority board voted 3-2 to delay a toll increase that was to be put into effect the following weekend. The hike would have raised fees to cross the Boston Harbor from $3.50 to $7. The hikes were delayed until July 1, in anticipation of legislative action that would alleviate the need for added funds through toll increases.
March 26, 2009 – The Senate approved the transportation bill.
April 8, 2009 – The House approved the transportation bill by a vote of 147-7.
By April 27, 2009, DeLeo floated his alternative plan, a sales tax, with $275 million in revenue dedicated to transportation. A Boston Globe editorial called the sales tax the most “straightforward” answer to our fiscal troubles.
It also cited the overall fairness of the tax and its ability to spread the burden justly.
DeLeo overcame a veto threat from the governor and received the support of more than two-thirds of the members of the House for his budget plan.
June 23, 2009 – The House and Senate passed the transportation bill.
June 26, 2009 – Governor Patrick signed the transportation bill.
Bottom line – the MTA will shortly cease to exist as part of the transportation reorganization bill. Tolls will remain the same.
The moral of the story – a Winthrop guy saved the day from some of the worst toll increases ever suggested in the history of this state’s government. In addition, the Winthrop guy turned the battle upside down. The new transportation bill will save the state a few billion when all is said and done.
Important infrastructure work will finally get underway, and local commuters and the cities and towns everywhere will transit through tunnels and ride on our highways without being fleeced.