Ruling nears; will affect several Winthrop residents

Friday, August 14, 2009
By Cary Shuman

By Seth Daniel

For the Transcript

Liz Krumenacker probably has one of the worst commutes in the state.

Every morning, she awakens in her Winthrop home and has to journey west to Ashland, where she is a manager for a major nonprofit. That journey, unfortunately, involves the Mass Pike, and it has become a very expensive proposition, one that increasingly seems unfair to her.

“I feel like I’m trapped in Winthrop,” she said. “I am beholden to the Pike and I feel it is very unfair. It feels inequitable to me. The only way I can get in and out is through Big Dig tunnels, and I get charged for them while others don’t. I don’t know where the money is going, either.”

Though no one would have ever thought government-imposed tolls could influence a person’s career, Krumenacker said it has briefly entered her mind.

“My job is very important and I like what I do and I’m needed,” she said. “It’s not like I could quit my job because I can’t pay the tolls.”

At one time, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was a simple toll-collecting agency, but now it has attracted the ire of many tollpayers and has prompted a lawsuit that many in Winthrop like Krumenacker are joining.

Beverly Attorney Jan Schlichtmann filed the class action lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court (in Woburn) against the Pike last May, and this month, there have been several court dates. A decision is believed to be imminent. The case has signed on 2,300 plaintiffs who all agree that they are being unfairly singled out to pay for Big Dig debt.

Jerry Carroll, also of Winthrop, said that he has been protesting the tolls for years, and maybe the court action will finally get the issue some attention.

“I’ve been fighting the tolls for years, with letters going unanswered and local representatives not being much help,” he said. “It’s come to this point ñ other than physically blocking the tunnels. I worked in Waltham last year and I spent $2,800 on the tolls. That’s an enormous burden for some of us, but not all of us. As we speak now, they’re using toll money for the Big Dig. It’s pretty obvious they’re not going to stop on their own.”

Schlictmann said the goal of the lawsuit is to stop the Pike from continuing its inequitable practices and to reward tollpayers for the alleged abuses of the past.

“This is caused by a Big Dig mentality which lives in the Turnpike Authority and, unfortunately, the executive branch is not doing anything to end this Big Dig culture,” he said. “It’s a way of treating people…with such disdain that you can do whatever you want, take whatever you want, and that is okay. The tollpayers have had enough.”

Schlictmann said the movement that created the lawsuit sprang from a grass roots organization that became coordinated by the Internet, where tollpayers continue to sign on to the suit even now.

Carroll agreed, saying that without the Internet, such movements could never gather any momentum.

“Of course the Internet makes this kind of communication possible,” he said. “It’s easier to reach out and find people likewise affected. Before, this would have been done by mail or phone and that’s time consuming and expensive.”

He explained he took the case because he began doing his research and found that the numbers didn’t add up.

As part of tollpayer relief, the state government gave the Pike $100 million on July 1. Combined with other non-toll revenue, the Pike had $157 million in its budget outside of tolls.

They said they needed $268 million to run the Authority.

Meanwhile, Schlictmann said, the Authority also planned on collecting every penny they could from the tollpayers, some $172 million, instead of giving them a break.

“They’ll have more than $40 million extra,” he said. “Why do they need $40 million more than they said they needed? …The numbers don’t add up, and it shows they don’t care about the tollpayers and they don’t care about fairness. They should be talking about reducing tolls in 2010, but instead, they’re talking about increasing them.

“They’re saying they will take all the taxpayer money and all the toll money too,” he said.

Another problem that Schlictmann identified is the inequity tollpayers faced, especially those in Revere and north of Boston. Of those that use the Metropolitan Highway System (including the Turnpike Authority, the Sumner Callahan tunnels, the Williams Tunnel and Interstate 93), he said only a few of them pay tolls.

By his numbers, some 632,000 people use those roads each weekday, and only 288,000 pass through a toll facility. That means 344,000 aren’t paying for the system.

“That means that 288,000 people are paying a fee for their use and they’re using all toll money to finance Big Dig debt,” he said. “Our North Shore contingent is one of our most valuable assets. They feel it intensely and are really singled out for abusive conduct.”

If the suit works out the way that he and tollpayers hope, he said there would be a settlement, and anyone signed onto the lawsuit who is a tollpayer would be able to recover some money. The ruling would also move things forward in a more equitable way, especially when the Turnpike is phased out on November 1.

He said in no way do they wish to make things more difficult for other commuters who aren’t paying a toll right now.

“There are all sorts of ways to make the past right,” he said. “We intend to sit down and figure out what can be done about the past.”

To sign onto the lawsuit, one can visit www.tollequity.com or write to Toll Equity Trust, P.O. Box 40, Southborough, MA 01772.

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