Plan to merge highway departments could benefit Mass Turnpike customers

| 1/13/2005

Massachusetts Turnpike drivers would get a break in tolls under a new plan by Gov. Mitt Romney to merge the Turnpike Authority with the state highway department and pass the savings onto drivers.

Romney will unveil the plan during his annual State of the State speech Thursday night. The plan is a variation of a long-standing proposal by the Republican governor to bring the independent authority under the control of state government.

Unlike previous versions, Romney now wants to use any savings from the merger – which he pegs at $170 million this year and $20 million annually – to cut tolls instead of adding it to the state’s general fund.

The Turnpike’s board would decide how to hand out the money, but Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom suggested to The Boston Globe that toll relief could come in several ways, including: an extension of the current Fast Lane discount at certain tolls, which is supposed to be temporary; a delay in an unspecified toll increase scheduled for 2008; or a break targeted for drivers in Central and Western Massachusetts.

Romney’s toll-relief plan is a bid to sway skeptical lawmakers, especially those who represent communities along the roadway, who have repeatedly rejected his previous efforts to merge the authority and the highway department.

In the past, lawmakers have balked at the merger saying it would require the state to take on the Turnpike’s debt. But the governor’s latest plan would keep the Turnpike’s debt separate.