Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has asked federal officials about the possibility of putting tolls at the Commonwealth’s borders [Boston.com / ProJo], including the border with Rhode Island. While the Governor is seeking these tolls to raise revenue for his financially strapped state to pay for transportation debt, including the Big Dig, tolls could also be used as a tool to increase the public’s use of transit and reduce our carbon emissions and reliance on foreign oil. However, tolls are a stick, to get people out of their cars we need carrots.
A special state panel here in Rhode Island also suggested tolls among other things to close funding gaps in the Ocean State. Thinking regionally (I know, that’s hard for us in New England), Rhode Island and Massachusetts could build toll plazas together on the RI/Mass borders. A toll plaza on Route 95 between the state line and Route 295 could encourage through traffic off Route 95, offering minor decongestion to traffic in Providence. There is no similar bypass for traffic on Route 195 and a toll plaza on the RI/Mass border there could result in traffic going through East Providence to use the Henderson Bridge, something I’m sure officials in East Providence would not be happy to see happen. But that is without the carrot.
Currently RIPTA is prohibited from operating in Massachusetts by federal regulations. As a result there is no public transit option for commuters coming into Providence from the South Coast of Massachusetts. Using the toll stick and stimulus money from the Federal government (and changing regulations to allow RIPTA to operate in the Commonwealth) we could very quickly get a bus system to Fall River and New Bedford (with hastily prepared park n’ rides along Route 195 in between) up and running. Gas prices, parking prices, tolls, traffic vs. a well run affordable transit option… People left their cars at home this summer.
Back to Route 95, we have MBTA service running north of Providence which would be a carrot to the tolls’ stick, but we need more granular transit. GATRA has spotty service through the Attleboros and Taunton, but it is not connected well to RIPTA or Providence. Again, let’s get some of that stimulus money working, RIPTA could take over and integrate GATRA service with an agreement between Massachusetts and Rhode Island to fund the Massachusetts routes and relief from the federal regulation that prohibit RIPTA’s operation out of state.
Massachusetts has readily attainable carrots at it’s other borders as well; New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail on the Connecticut border, Springfield-White River Junction Commuter Rail on the Vermont border, Commuter Rail to Nashua and Manchester on the New Hampshire border.
Our leaders need to take a second to breath and look beyond the crisis. Yes, tolls on the borders will probably help Massachusetts seal some of the leaks in it’s budget in the short term, but what will we be left with. Strike while the iron is hot, we’re ready to roll with real transit improvements that can be an asset to our collective New England economies for decades to come. Our Congressional Delegations need to hustle to get us the money.