100 Pike toll takers to lose jobs; Big Dig costs drive decision; Fast Lane, toll changes mulled.

Byline: John J. Monahan

BOSTON - Massachusetts Turnpike users are going to be seeing more electronic Fast Lanes and fewer manual cash lanes in the coming months, and may also face elimination of the existing Fast Lane discounts and another big toll hike in January.

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials announced yesterday they are going to lay off about 100 toll takers who earn from $70,000 to $90,000 annually in salary in benefits over the next 18 months. They are hoping to reap savings by pushing more traffic through the lower-cost Fast Lane tolls in the future.

The layoff plans come as the state agency that runs the Massachusetts Turnpike and Big Dig bridges and tunnels in Boston grapples with a $50 million budget shortfall this year, which is expected to grow to $100 million next year to meet ballooning principal and interest payments built into Big Dig bond repayment schedules.

While the Turnpike Authority has imposed scheduled toll increases every six years to meet those Big Dig bond repayment increases since the late 1990s, a new toll hike in January would come five years before the current bond covenants require the next scheduled toll increase.

At a closed Statehouse briefing with a group of legislators yesterday, turnpike officials said elimination of the Fast Lane tolls that save Worcester-Boston commuters $1 on a round trip is currently being considered, and that they also may impose a toll increase in January.

State Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen confirmed after the meeting that both possible elimination of the Fast Lane discounts and unscheduled toll increase in January, will be discussed at the Turnpike Authority board meeting next Thursday.

A new toll increase, Mr. Cohen said "has got to be a last resort." But he indicated decisions are imminent over how to close the agency's budget gap. "We need some discussion at the meeting if that is where we have to go, but we are trying hard to avoid a toll increase," Mr. Cohen said.

State Rep. Karyn E. Polito, R-Shrewsbury, who asked for the meeting with turnpike officials, said afterward that the state Legislature would have to approve any elimination of the Fast Lane discount, but would not have a say over a general toll increase.

"I wanted answers as to how we are going to fund the Big Dig project as a commonwealth, versus having my constituents in Central Massachusetts pay for that," Ms. Polito said. "That fairness issue was left an open issue today. I am deeply...

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