Additional tolls? Congestion pricing? Mass. lawmakers set to begin study of new road fees.

The generations of Massachusetts drivers have paid tolls in this area only if they were on the Turnpike or on the Tobin Bridge or Boston Harbor tunnels. Boston Harbor tunnels. But this could change soon.

The state Legislature is seeking to establish an advisory commission to recommend innovative “roadway pricing” opportunities throughout the state. To put it in another way, more tolls.

In the last couple of weeks, both the House as well as the Senate have voted to approve the transportation bonds with language in the back to be a “special commission on pricing for mobility,” a catchall phrase which covers not just roads, but as well regional bus systems, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and regional bus networks.

The mission of the commission is to provide recommendations regarding equitable pricing changes for public transportation and roads. Particularly, they will look into congestion pricing, which is toll prices based on the timing of the day or the amount of traffic. Other subjects the commission will have to address include the effect on car emissions as well as the impact on operation as well as maintenance expenses. The legislation obliges the commission to submit a report by July 1 2023 with proposals to Legislature and not greater than 5 “mobility costing” plans.

The addition of tolls to new roads or making congestion-based pricing only became technically feasible after the introduction of electronic gantries which replaced the human toll-takers approximately 6 years ago. The political feasibility of the idea is a completely different matter.

The idea of increasing the state’s gas tax by 24 cents per gallon is a source of contention in the same way as increasing tolls. At the beginning of 2021, Governor Charlie Baker torpedoed a section of a transportation law that would have established a congestion-pricing commission. The time was when Baker stated that it was still too early after the outbreak of the pandemic for him to draw conclusions regarding the future behavior of drivers.

The tax on gas has already seen a decline probably due to the switch towards remote offices during the COVID-19 epidemic, and not electric vehicles. Prior to the outbreak, it was common for the tax to bring an average of $640 million to 680 million per year. The figure fell to $611 million during the twelve months ending in June 2020, and then $567 million in the next year. (Gas revenue from taxes was nearing 600 million in the fiscal year was just concluded, but the figure for June is not yet publically available.)

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