The financial wreck on the Mass. Pike has been a long time coming. The collision of taxes and tolls should be a surprise to no one - least of all Gov. Deval Patrick.

The financial wreck on the Mass. Pike has been a long time coming. The collision of taxes and tolls should be a surprise to no one - least of all Gov. Deval Patrick.

But there he was Thursday, dodging the question that was on everyone's minds: "I think the whole question of gas taxes versus toll increases is not quite where the choice is right now," he told reporters on a sidewalk outside of the State House.

It's not? A week earlier, the Mass. Turnpike Authority board gave preliminary approval to $100 million worth of toll increases. Those toll hikes - adding $3 per round-trip for most commuters from MetroWest and doubling the tolls on the harbor tunnels to $7 - have sparked outrage not just west of Boston but north of it as well.

Even politicians who have never shown sympathy for the toll-payers' plight - including House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Boston Mayor Tom Menino - are now saying raising gas taxes would be better than raising tolls.

Not Patrick. Tolls vs. the gas tax? That's not where the choice is, says the governor. Of course, Patrick wasn't at the TPA meeting. He was on vacation at his Berkshires mansion when his transportation secretary pushed through the toll hike with votes from all his appointees.

Patrick's people made the choice, and they chose to raise tolls.

"It will take time to have a comprehensive debate about the gas tax," Patrick said at his sidewalk press conference.

Of course, Patrick wasn't there in September 2007, when the state Transportation Finance Study Commission announced their long-awaited recommendations for closing its estimated $19 billion gap between transportation needs and revenues. The nonpartisan commission had been created by the Legislature for the express purpose of starting a comprehensive debate. Along with an ambitious list of cost-cutting reforms, it called for an 11.5-cent in the gas tax.

Patrick smothered that debate in the cradle when, in a suspicious coincidence, he scheduled a press conference announcing his support for casino gambling at the exact time the study commission was announcing its recommendations.

Patrick told the reporters this week he would welcome "a fulsome debate" over transportation finance. "I love the idea that there seems to be some urgency to it."

Of course, Patrick wasn't at the Pike Authority's public hearings a year ago, where there was plenty of urgency expressed about the Pike's inability to make its Big Dig debt payments if tolls weren't increased.

Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen was there and he called for a minimal increase to cover the short-term obligations. The governor was working on a major proposal to reorganize transportation agencies, Cohen said, and it should be in place before we have to look at tolls again.

A year later, there's still no plan, only some vague leaks about taking down tollbooths west of Rte. 128 - except at the Connecticut and New York borders. There's talk of dismantling the Turnpike Authority, merging the western Pike with the state Highway Department and putting the eastern Pike and Big Dig under the management of MassPort.

Those are interesting ideas, worthy of "fulsome debate." Patrick also talks about reforming the system and cutting out waste. His administration has already done a little of that, laying off toll-takers and breaking the police monopoly on traffic details, though he hasn't gone after anything that would provoke the wrath of the public employee unions.

But where's the proposal? Before voting to raise tolls this month, Cohen told MetroWest legislators Patrick is still working out the details.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Pike's financial time bomb. It doesn't have the cash flow to meet its ballooning Big Dig obligations. It doesn't have the money to meet its maintenance needs. If one more bond rating agency downgrades its credit status, the Pike will have to pay $36 million under a complicated "swaptions" deal negotiated by prior management.

The Turnpike Authority has scheduled pro-forma public hearings on the new tolls in December and January, with a final vote timed to put the increases into effect in early April.

There's some suspicion that Cohen opted for a larger toll increase - a few days earlier, he was proposing a $70 million package, not the $100 million he eventually recommended - in order to build support for an alternative revenue stream.

If so, it worked. Out here in MetroWest, we've been screaming for years that it's unfair to make east/west Pike commuters pay for the north/south Big Dig while thousands of those who actually use it never see a tollbooth, a message that is finally starting to reach Boston. Even newspapers traditionally unsympathetic to Pike users, like the Boston Globe and The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, are now endorsing a higher gas tax as more equitable than higher tolls.

DiMasi may be trying to change the subject from the conflict-of-interest scandal and succession battle that have been buffeting him lately, or he's hearing the outrage from North End neighbors about $7 tunnel tolls and worries about toll-evading traffic clogging city streets. But his support for a gas tax is the first time in a decade of Pike battles that a member of the Democratic leadership has sided with the MetroWest delegation.

Things are less encouraging on the other side of the State House. Senate President Therese Murray comes from the South Shore, where the attitude has always been "tolls for thee, but none for me." She says she wants a "comprehensive strategy" that considers all kinds of options, including a "public-private partnership." That means you sell or lease the highways for big bucks to a private contractor, which makes its money back - plus a handsome profit - by raising tolls.

Murray says she favors neither toll hikes nor higher gas taxes, but her foot-dragging all but guarantees the higher tolls will have to be imposed to avoid a Pike default while she studies issues that have been studied to death.

Patrick's foot-dragging promises the same result. As in the past, commuters will whine about paying higher tolls, but they'll get over it. As in the past, politicians will talk about abolishing the Turnpike Authority and reforming the system, but in the end, the status quo will survive - especially once the pressure of an impending toll increase disappears.

If the Patrick administration is working on a comprehensive proposal, they aren't letting MetroWest legislators - who should be his natural allies - into the room. Instead, it looks like we'll have the governor's proposal, a House proposal and a Senate proposal, which will take months or maybe years to reconcile.

Lawmakers are filing bills left and right. One group wants to postpone the toll hikes until 2010, though how they'll pay the Big Dig bond obligations is unclear. Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, has filed a bill to hike the gas tax 11 cents and take down the Weston and Allston-Brighton tolls. Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, wants to get all the players in the same room to find common ground - and do it in time to stop the toll hikes.

But the most important player is on the sidelines. "We'll see what comes to me," on transportation, he told the reporters Thursday, as if his job was to sit and wait for a bill to sign.

Patrick's passivity is a mystery. He rode a landslide into the governor's office two years ago, but he has yet to find a cause worthy of his mandate. Transportation finance has been a festering sore since the Big Dig grew out of control a decade ago, but he has preferred not to engage it.

Now, with the Pike's bills coming due, the prospect of a huge toll increase is breaking up the ice. Gas prices are down 50 percent from last summer. The state's 23.5-cent gas tax is well below neighboring states and hasn't been raised since 1991.

A parade is forming around a package that includes taking down the tolls, killing the Turnpike Authority, reorganization, reform and a higher gas tax. What many people don't understand is why is the governor so reluctant to get in front of it?

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at