Critics of the proposal point to the impact the incentive plan would have on drivers with inflexible schedules and those of low-income, who may not be able to afford, for example, long distance bus service.
(TNS) — Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on legislation looking to establish a pilot program to test time-of-day pricing for tolls in East Boston to help reduce congestion by offering discounts to drivers during off-peak hours.
“When we talk about congestion, the number-one policy recommendation of any expert in the field is congestion pricing, all around the country,” said state Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat and chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “We’ve seen it work in other cities, and if we’re going to have a really serious conversation about doing something, I think it needs to be part of the solution.”
Boncore’s bill looks to introduce varying toll rates at the Sumner, Callahan and Ted Williams tunnels in Boston, including discounts to drivers commuting during off-peak hours of at least 25 percent. Experts say the changing rates would encourage drivers to commute earlier in the morning and later in the evening and free up traffic lanes for commuters as well as for buses.
“What pricing would do is both shift trips to the shoulders … but also encourage more … carpooling … bus service, or train service — those become more attractive options to people,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of more than 70 partner organizations across the state that including municipalities, businesses and nonprofits.
But critics of the proposal point to the impact the incentive plan would have on drivers with inflexible schedules and those of low-income, who may not be able to afford, for example, long distance bus service. Some also suggest the congestion pricing scheme would benefit the eastern part of the state at the expense of Western Massachusetts.
“A lot of folks in Western Massachusetts can’t afford that,” said state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Northampton Democrat. "Peter Pan is four times more expensive than the MBTA, so that’s definitely not an option.”
Congestion pricing looks to remove only a small percentage of cars off the road — those with flexible schedules — to help ease the roadways for commuters with more fixed travel times, according to Dempsey.
“The rule of thumb here is if we can get 5% of cars off the road … at rush hour, we can have a 20 percent reduction in traffic,” Dempsey said.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said previously that he had “significant concerns” about congestion pricing, noting it would punish drivers who have no flexibility in their work schedule or in taking children to school. Instead, Baker has expressed support for adding toll lanes to roads that are currently not tolled in to ease congestion.
Lawmakers also heard testimony on Tuesday in support of legislation aimed at electrifying buses and transitioning to “zero-emission technology.” Daniel Gatti, senior transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said congestion pricing is an important part of “thinking about” how to begin to make that transition to cleaner transportation fuels.
“Our transportation finance system right now is deeply dependent on fossil fuels,” Gatti said. “Congestion pricing, if it works, is going to relieve the burden on ... drivers.”
A report released earlier this year ranked Boston as the most congested — and therefore densest — cities in the country. In response to chronic transportation woes, Baker has introduced an $18 billion bond bill that includes investments aimed at modernizing and expanding the commuter rail and subway lines.
Other cities around the country have adopted or are exploring congestion pricing schemes to reduce traffic, including New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego, among others.
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