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Mass. Gov. to seek change in transportation bill

Bob Salsberg, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- Gov. Deval Patrick planned to ask the Legislature to maintain tolls on the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike beyond 2017 or find an equivalent revenue source before he agreed to sign a major transportation financing bill, the state's transportation secretary said on Thursday.

The bill, calling for $500 million in new taxes to help address chronic shortfalls in transportation funding, was sent to Patrick's desk Wednesday night after the House and Senate accepted a final version worked out by a six-member conference committee.

Patrick has 10 days to act on the measure but has already said he will return it to lawmakers, asking for changes.

The key sticking point stems from an agreement dating to 1997 that calls for tolls to be removed from the turnpike, west of the Route 128 interchange in Weston, on Jan. 1, 2017.

Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said if the tolls were eliminated as scheduled, the result would be an annual loss of $135 million, making it impossible for the bill to deliver the promised $800 million in new transportation funding by fiscal year 2018.

Davey, in an interview with The Associated Press, noted that Patrick had originally sought $1.2 billion in additional transportation funding, but was willing to accept the lower figure approved by the Legislature. He was unwilling, however, to go lower than $800 million.

"We feel like that's just not enough," Davey said.

The secretary identified the toll problem in a June 6 letter to members of the conference committee, prior to the panel's final agreement on the bill. In the letter, obtained by the AP, Davey urged the lawmakers to include language in the bill that would either maintain the tolls beyond 2017, or raise revenue to replace the tolls — by raising the gasoline tax by more than what is called for in the legislation, for example.

The secretary said in the letter that he could not recommend that Patrick sign the forthcoming bill unless the toll issue was addressed.

Davey said Thursday that Patrick had not decided whether his proposed amendment would call for keeping the tolls or allowing them to come down and replacing them with a new source of revenue.

"We want to get this done with significant support from the Legislature, so we are open to how we do it," Davey said.

Messages were left Thursday with the co-chairs of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, and Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett.

The bill calls for raising the gas tax by 3 cents per gallon to 24 cents per gallon, and indexing future increases to the tax to inflation. It also calls for boosting the cigarette tax by $1 per pack and imposing the state's 6.25 percent sales tax on computer and software services.

If lawmakers reject Patrick's amendment, the governor would then have to decide whether to sign or veto the measure in its current form. The margins of final passage in both branches were sufficient to override a veto, but there was no guarantee that all votes would be unchanged.

An extended impasse over the transportation bill could have consequences for other Massachusetts finances. House and Senate negotiators are currently working on a final version of a $34 billion state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and assumes the $500 million in new taxes. Lawmakers have authorized a one-month stopgap budget in the event there is no spending plan in place by Monday.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's budget for the new fiscal year also assumes funding from the transportation bill to erase the transit system's projected $118 million deficit. In the absence of that funding, Davey said the MBTA would have to consider steps on its own to erase the deficit.

"We don't want to create a panic," he said. "We remain optimistic that we can get this done with the legislation, but if we can't, we're going to have to go back and look at potential fare hikes or service cuts."