Maura Healey’s Transportation Secretary Isn’t The Only Massachusetts Democrat Calling For More Tolls

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By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

As the state transportation secretary’s recent comments about imposing tolls for drivers crossing into Massachusetts continue to attract fire from political adversaries and a conservative watchdog group, they have also won a measure of support from one of the most powerful lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt told advocates at a Walk Massachusetts event this month that the task force she is leading to review new transportation finance options is taking an uncensored look at every option. And while the secretary said as much in the past, the comments first reported last week by CommonWealth Beacon were more explicit and elicited greater pushback for the way they seemingly targeted certain individuals or groups.

“I’m going to talk about tolling. I’m going to talk about charging [transportation network companies] more. I’m going to talk about potentially charging more for package deliveries, charging more for payroll tax — basically going after everybody who has money,” Tibbits-Nutt said at the event, according to a recording. “And when I’m talking tolling, I’m talking at the borders. I’m not talking within Massachusetts.”

Tibbits-Nutt’s comments about tolling and raising transportation revenue — as well as remarks she made about “100 percent passing judgement” on people who drive large trucks or SUVs — drew the ire of the Republican Party, which called the secretary’s speech “an abhorrent display of bad policy, and showed blatant disrespect for Massachusetts residents.” Other conservative groups have called for Tibbits-Nutt to be fired.

Asked about the idea of border tolls Monday, Senate President Karen Spilka said she would be open to considering the idea. Spilka represents a district that lies along the tolled Massachusetts Turnpike and for years has highlighted the fact that people in her part of the state have to pay tolls far more often than people who live along untolled highways, like Interstates 93 or 95.

“I live in Metro West where we have had tolls for many, many years to pay for a project that not many of my constituents actually use on a day-to-day basis. I believe that — and I’ve said this publicly — if tolls are such a great idea for the Turnpike, we should look at them for funding for other areas of the state. I have filed, in the past, bills to put tolls at the border. So I do believe that we need to be creative about our funding. And I do believe that it needs to be fair, because I believe the tolls system right now is not fair at all,” Spilka told reporters Monday after speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “So I would certainly be willing to have discussions about creative and fair ways to raise revenues for our many infrastructure needs.”

Almost exactly five years ago, in her remarks to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Spilka told business leaders that the state needed to start thinking about putting tolls like those on the Turnpike along other roadways.

“Simply put, and I put this out there, if tolls are a good idea for my district, my region, I believe we should explore the possibility of expanded tolling, including possibly at our borders,” Spilka said in April 2019. “Our best ideas won’t matter if we can’t find a way to make a 21st century transportation infrastructure a reality — and find a way to pay for it.”

Discussions about border tolling might not get off the ground soon. In a statement released Monday, Governor Maura Healey said she does not share the secretary’s enthusiasm for adding tolls at Massachusetts borders, though she voiced support for the embattled transportation secretary.

“The Secretary’s comments do not represent the views of this administration, and to be clear, I am not proposing tolls at any border,” Healey said. “I have spoken to the Secretary and made that clear, and that I have confidence in her leadership moving forward in this important time as we work to ensure a strong and robust state transportation system.”

Transportation financing has been studied for years in and around state government and the new effort Healey launched this year will add another chapter to the research, but again with no assurance that it will lead to actual improvements. Tibbits-Nutt chairs the task force, with Administration and Finance Secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz as vice chairman.

The group is asked over the next year to recommend a long-term plan for making — and paying for — investments in transportation infrastructure all around Massachusetts. Healey has neither embraced nor ruled out the idea of pursuing tax or fee increases to generate more money for the transportation sector, a subject that always induces strong debate on Beacon Hill.

Earlier in her remarks to Walk Massachusetts, Tibbits-Nutt made clear that she plans to use her time as transportation secretary to try to break through some of the red tape and inertia that has stalled significant changes for years, and said she would not hold back when speaking her mind.

“I’ve never gotten to work in the government before, this is kind of like my first shot at this. And the thing I always said is I will not spend one day trying to keep my job. I just won’t. Because otherwise it makes it very, very hard to actually do the job correctly. Because you’re gonna make tons of enemies, you’re going to have to say things that people don’t want to hear because it’s either going to make them feel really bad, or it is going to put them in a position where they have absolutely no choice but to now do something with what you just said,” Tibbits-Nutt said. She added, “And now you have a bunch of people who have never worked in government … there’s literally no way we’re gonna vest. You’re not like having to worry about us staying around just to get a pension. I will not make it that long, I just won’t. But it does mean I get to have the really hard conversations.”


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