Massachusetts Drivers Don’t Want to Pay Higher Tolls, Admit Infrastructure Is Failing

A new survey shows voters are not eager about rush-hour surge pricing as a means to alleviate traffic around Boston.

Cars in gridlock

Photo via iStock/Grafissimo

In an unsurprising non-twist, Massachusetts drivers are not speeding toward the chance to pay higher tolls.

Despite the gridlock that paralyzes the Hub’s streets during rush hour (you didn’t actually think you’d get to Logan with enough time to grab a snack for your flight, right?), voters balked at the idea of raising tolls at times when the roads are most congested to discourage driving. A new poll from MassINC Polling Group and the Barr Foundation found 55 percent of 709 surveyed residents oppose shelling out more money for the “privilege” of driving into and out of Boston during rush hour. On the other hand, 60 percent of respondents support lowering fees when roads are typically emptier to encourage people to travel at off-peak hours. So that’s a yes on lower tolls, no on higher tolls. Weird!

The cost of living in Massachusetts is already a lot higher than in many other states, so it’s not exactly a curveball that voters aren’t looking for ways to hand over more cash to the state. And yet, excess traffic inevitably adds pressure to infrastructure, and poll respondents agreed that something has to be done about transportation in the Bay State. Ninety-four percent of surveyed voters said improving the state’s highways, roads, and bridges should be a priority, and just 14 percent of people said transportation has gotten better in the last five years.

Rush hour-oriented tolls, called congestion pricing, have been implemented in several cities around the world, including London, Milan, and Stockholm; New York City is also considering joining the list. The application of the charge varies, with some cities dolling out a flat rate and others calculating the tax based on factors like time of day and current traffic levels. The new survey data from the Barr Foundation didn’t get into specifics about how the toll could work in Boston.

A congestion fee was instituted in London back in 2003, and drivers who want to get to the center of the city have to pay £11.50 ($15.97) each day to get there. And yet, as CityLab reports, London has been plagued by the worst traffic delays in Europe, attributable to a population boom and the rise of ride-share services like Uber (sound familiar?). Uber was formally stripped of its license to operate in London in September, though the service still operates. Still, the London example does not exactly suggest the tolling system works, though it’s unclear how much worse the traffic would be if the fee were removed.

Although Boston, unlike London, doesn’t seem to be moving toward any kind of Uber ban right now, the rise of ride sharing services has had a distinctly negative effect on the city’s endless traffic jams. Researchers have found options like Lyft have not complemented MBTA service in the Hub in the slightest, but rather, pulled riders off public transportation and onto the city streets, increasing congestion in the process. Because if everyone gets off the same stalled out Green Line train and hops in separate Ubers, it utterly defeats the purpose of having public transit.

Clearly the combination of failing public transportation (remember when the Red Line “exploded” just last week?) and the resulting pressure on city roads from riders who don’t want to ride said exploding trains needs to be addressed. But given the iffy results in London and the clear unpopularity among voters, the tolling solution could be a hard sell.