Mass. Lawmakers Press for Transportation Reforms

Fri December 19, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Steve LeBlanc - Associated Press




BOSTON (AP) Legislative leaders grilled members of Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration and top transportation officials Dec. 9, criticizing them for delays in drafting a final version of a transportation reform package as the state faces increasing fiscal pressures.

At a public hearing, Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman Sen. Steven Baddour also urged Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen to press the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to reduce plans for a hefty toll hike.

Baddour said the Turnpike should hike tolls just enough to get through the next year, giving the administration and lawmakers time to hammer out a reform package. The Turnpike board has proposed increasing the fee at tunnels leading to Logan International Airport from $3.50 to $7.

“Isn’t the time now to say to the board that we shouldn’t go forward with a dramatic increase, that this is the time to do the minimum needed to meet the bond requirements,’’ said Baddour, who also expressed frustration about the pace of getting a reform package to lawmakers.

“We’ve been talking about comprehensive reform for a long time but we still haven’t seen the details,’’ he said.

Turnpike Executive Director Alan LeBovidge said a temporary hike could hurt the agency’s credit rating. He said the larger toll hike was designed to avoid the need to raise tolls again soon.

“The concern is that the bond rating agencies, if there was a significant backpedaling on what was proposed, would not view that kindly,’’ he said. “They are not interested in just another promise.’’

Baddour said he was concerned about one proposal already floated by the administration.

That plan calls for dismantling the Turnpike Authority, eliminating all tolls west of Route 128 except at two state border crossings, raising tolls closer to Boston to pay off Big Dig debt and turning over operations of that portion of the Turnpike within Route 128, the so-called Metropolitan Highway System, to the Massachusetts Port Authority.

MassPort CEO Thomas Kinton said he’s willing to work with the governor, but pointed out that the agency has been able to largely shield itself from the fiscal troubles rocking Wall Street by making conservative investments.

Kinton said he wouldn’t want to jeopardize that by taking on Big Dig debt without a solid fiscal plan.

“My answer at this point is an emphatic ’maybe,’’’ Kinton said. “The real question is can the numbers work, and that is the question we are investigating.’’

Kinton said Logan Airport, which is operated by MassPort, could also be looking at its own troubles as the nation grapples with the ongoing economic slowdown. He said Thanksgiving traffic this year was 15 percent below last year.

Cohen defended the administration’s work on coming up with a comprehensive reform plan to submit to lawmakers. He also blamed much of the state’s current transportation woes on bad planning in the past.

“Fractured, balkanized transportation agencies prevent a robust statewide planning and decision-making process,’’ he said. “This is the sorry legacy we have inherited.’’

Cohen said Patrick is committed to making reforms before looking for new revenue sources, such as an increase in the gas tax. Those reforms include consolidating transportation agencies to reduce waste and duplication.

Lawmakers at the hearing also raised the suggestion of eliminating Turnpike tolls in exchange for a hike in the gas tax.

Cohen said he’s not taking a position on the issue, but said it would take about an increase of a dime in the gas tax to make up for the $285 million in toll revenue on Turnpike, although the tax hike could be less since the cost of maintaining toll booths would also be eliminated.

At Dec. 9’s public hearing, MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said the public transit system is also facing fiscal woes. He said a dropoff in the sales tax has hurt the agency, which receives one penny of every five pennies spent on the state’s five-cent sales tax.

But the biggest problem crushing the T is the amount it must pay in debt service each year. Nearly a third of its revenue goes to paying down debt — that equals about all the fares collected in a year, forcing the agency to live off advertising revenues and payments from cities and towns.

“Virtually everything that people pay to ride the T goes to [debt] service,’’ Grabauskas said.