Back in 1996, Governor Bill Weld wanted to be Senator. John Kerry was running for his third term. Amidst the clash of blue-blooded New Englanders, Weld decided it would be a great political coup to remove tolls on two sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. So he zeroed out the tolls in Western Mass (which mainly required new tickets—yes, that was pre-EZ-Pass—as the highway still required toll barriers; the tolls were reinstated last year to little fanfare) and nixed the toll in Weston Newton. While the Western Mass tolls were a quiet affair, the West Newton tolls were less so.
Much of the traffic coming east on the Turnpike originates on Route 128. When the Southwest and Northwest expressways were canceled, the Pike became the only western trunk route in to the city. Up until that point, the toll to access the Turnpike at 128 was 50¢, and in West Newton it was 25¢. Traffic from the south on 128 has little incentive to stay on 128 to the Turnpike, as the diagonal Route 16 is two miles shorter and, even with traffic lights, negligibly slower, especially given the roundabout design of the 90/128 interchange, where Boston-bound motorists drive half a mile due west before swinging back east through the toll gates. Until 1996, there was a 25¢ difference between staying on the highway and taking the surface roads. In 1996, the savings went to 50¢, and when tolls were raised in 2002, to $1.00 (it stands at $1.25 today). This was a four-fold increase in the direct cost savings over those six years, and there was suddenly a much higher incentive to take the Route 16 shortcut and save a dollar.
And the state lost money, to boot.
So the new electronic toll can’t come soon enough. It’s too hard to tell if it will rebalance the traffic, or if growing traffic volumes in the intervening 18 years have created this traffic in any event. But it will finally correct a problem nearly two decades in the making by a governor trying to score political points; a problem that never should have occurred in the first place.