Turnpike foes hit the road

Ballot question asks voters for relief from tolls

By Sean Patrick Lyons, Globe Staff, 10/22/2000

he idea of getting rid of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority's toll booths first struck Doug Barth on his way to work on a Christmas Eve morning 14 years ago.

That's literally struck. Like with a big pickup truck.

''I was stopped at the Allston-Brighton toll booth, I had my arm stretched out throwing a quarter into the toll basket, then I saw lights and heard a screech,'' Barth said. ''This pickup just rammed into me. I went about 100 feet until my car stopped against a guardrail.''

The truck sped off, leaving Barth with a cracked-up car and a sure idea that the toll booths ought to come down.

''It was like electroshock therapy,'' Barth said. ''It's stayed with me.''

Fed up with what he says are unfair fees and dangerous collection booths for motorists, Barth finally formed the Free the Pike Coalition in 1994, a group of commuters bent on dismantling the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Free the Pike is sponsoring a ballot initiative - this November's Question 6 - that would allow commuters and businesses to deduct what they pay every year in Massachusetts tolls from their state tax sheets.

The question would also do away with excise taxes, a key revenue source for local governments, but fees that have long been a sore spot for the Massachusetts taxpayer.

Question 6's passage would likely prove the death knell for the Turnpike Authority, long perceived by many as a fiscally foolhardy agency that serves as nothing more than a patronage machine for state politicians.

While it's unclear where the bill now stands with voters statewide, the plan is expected to be at least embraced wholesale by commuters throughout Boston's western metropolitan area, some of whom toss more than $1,000 a year into the Pike's toll baskets.

But opponents of the measure - which include an unlikely mix of unions, businesses and state legislators - claim it could force taxpayers across the state to foot a larger portion of the Big Dig price tag and eliminate budget surpluses pegged for school construction and road repairs.

They argue the state would lose close to $750 million a year with the bill, and that the money lost from the excise tax would force dramatic cutbacks in local budgets. Every car owner currently pays $25 in excise taxes for every $1,000 their automobile is worth. That means a $10,000 car is billed $250 every year by the local government.

''This initiative is just too much,'' said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan business group that has come out against the measure. ''Ten percent of the amount collected on the tolls is going to pay for the Big Dig. If we do away with them, the costs will be spread out across the state, rather than the people who are going to be using it the most.''

In their defense, the Free the Pike group says one need simply turn to the 1952 law that created the authority, or better yet, check out an excerpt of that law at freethepike.com's home page:

''When all the bonds ... have been paid ... the turnpike, if then in good condition ... shall become part of the state highway system and shall thereafter be operated and maintained by said department free of tolls.''

Barth and his fellow ''free pikers'' say the claims that their initiative would deal a weighty blow to state revenues hold little weight.

They say the $750 million figure cited by opponents is about $350 million higher than the actual number, and that with a state budget of more than $20 billion, the lost reveune would count for only 1.5 percent of the budget.

''I wouldn't trust numbers put out by people who are running the Big Dig,'' said Harold Hubschman, a Free the Pike member, alluding to the project's infamous cost overruns.

''This would simply slow the government's growth,'' he said. ''Toll collections are a stupid way to collect money in the first place. The overhead to hire workers and maintain the booths makes it a money-losing proposition from the start.''

Silent on the issue, at least publicly, are turnpike officials themselves. There would probably be few voters sympathetic to their cause in the wake of revelations earlier this year that top turnpike officials attempted to hide spiraling costs with the Big Dig.

''We're keeping our noses out of it,'' said Bob Bliss, a spokesman for the authority.

The Free the Pike Coalition has twice failed in its efforts to get the booths removed. Four years ago, the coalition was unable to get enough signatures for a initiative to phase out the booths over a seven-year period.

In 1998, Free the Pike got more than enough for a question to abolish the booths outright. But the courts ruled that the question could not be placed on the ballot because the Turnpike Authority still owed money to bond holders.

''So the next best thing is to give the people a tax credit,'' said Barth.

Under Question 6, commuters would have to keep all of their receipts in order to get a full refund of the expenses on their tax return.

And while the initiative itself does not abolish the toll booths, it renders them - and the authority - impotent if everyone asks back the money they put in.

For commuters in Boston's western suburbs who feel the booths are unfair, the measure might be worth the wait.

The average commuter who gets on and off the Pike at Exit 11A in Westborough, for example, will get back the $832 they hand to toll takers every year, if they commute to Boston five days a week, every week of the year.

For Exit 13 commuters in Framingham, that number dips to $728, and $624 for those who get on at Exit 12 in Natick.

But while those commuters might save hundreds of dollars themselves, Question 6's opponents argue that taxpayers statewide will come out losers.

''We think the state should target a middle-income tax cut, and leave the surpluses to fix school buildings and pay some of the debt down,'' said Jack McCarthy, manager for the Campaign for Massachusetts' Future. ''If we don't use the surpluses for that, they will go to fill the gap left by this bill.''

But Barth is sure he can convince voters to drive the ballot question home.

''I think it's a matter of keeping our government officials accountable to the promises they make,'' Barth said. ''Getting hit that day really woke me up, and I think it's time for the Turnpike Authority to do the same.''