The state highway system is bringing in nearly as much money from tolls as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic hit three years ago.
The Department of Transportation collected $215.9 million from motorists using tolled roads in the first two quarters of fiscal 2023, only $5 million less than the same span in fiscal 2019, the last full budget cycle before the public health emergency upended life and rewired work and travel patterns.
With that year-to-date haul, MassDOT expects it will wrap up the year with 99 percent as much toll revenue as before COVID, an outlook chief financial officer David Pottier called “great news.”
Recovery has been substantial, but not identical, across the various roadways where the state imposes charges on motorists.
Comparing the first half of fiscal 2023 to the first half of fiscal 2019, toll revenues in the Boston-area Metropolitan Highway System (MHS), which includes the Central Artery, Sumner and Callahan Tunnels, and the Massachusetts Turnpike between downtown and Interstate 95, were about 5 percent lower. The most recent collections were 3 percent higher on the western stretches of the Turnpike and 7 percent higher on the Tobin Bridge.
“It’s really not a surprising statistic only because there has been somewhat of a continued sea change as far as people coming into the city to work. People are still availing themselves to working from home,” Pottier told a MassDOT committee. “So therefore, we’re not that dismayed for MHS being at 95 percent [of pre-pandemic revenue], but by the same token, we’re not necessarily suggesting that we’re going to be at 100 percent on MHS of pre-pandemic any time soon. This might be the new normal.”
The “very robust” toll revenues Pottier described underscore the disparate trends between public transit and highway driving.
Although roadway travel has returned in force and reinstated some of the worst traffic in the nation, overall ridership at the MBTA remains significantly depleted compared to pre-pandemic levels.
In late 2022, the T was collecting only a bit more than 50 percent as much fare revenue — which in the past represented about a third of the agency’s total budget — as it did before COVID-19.
Public confidence in the MBTA remains shaky due to reliability and safely concerns, which are working against the state’s goal of curbing climate emissions by getting more people out of their cars and on to public transit.
Questions loom about the T’s outlook. The agency has a pile of one-time state and federal dollars to put to use, but that aid runs out in the coming years and officials then predict budget gaps of hundreds of millions of dollars, with even larger shortfalls likely if fare revenue don’t rebound.
At MassDOT, a boon to its budget has been investments. For all of fiscal 2023, the department’s budget projected collecting $3.8 million from investment returns; in just the first two quarters, those returns totaled $23.2 million, more than six times higher than the full-year expectation.
“Investment income is really surpassing our wildest dreams,” Pottier said. “We’re making so much more. We’re making four and a half percent, nearly, on our money market accounts versus just a fraction of that as recently as a year ago.”
(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.