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MassDOT Considering More In-House Road Plowing

Mon July 19, 2010 - National Edition

BOSTON (AP) Transportation officials are examining how much money Massachusetts might save if they had state employees assume more highway snow-removal duties from the current patchwork of private contractors.

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said June 21 the $57.5 million the state is preparing to spend this coming winter is ripe for scrutiny because it’s one of his bigger budget line items. And that figure is below historical averages: Massachusetts spent $66 million for plowing last winter and has spent an average of $76 million annually during the past five years.

In most cases, the state underbudgets the account each summer and then adds money as it monitors how the winter is progressing. This year, the state will try to manage to the figure.

Mullan noted the former Massachusetts Turnpike Authority used its own employees to plow the Pike. But the Highway Department often relies on landscapers, contractors or other private employees to plow other major roadways. Many of those seasonal workers use the government income to help get their companies through their winter lull.

Mullan said bringing more of the work in-house would require buying new equipment. But he said it may take better advantage of money the state is already spending on its employee payroll.

“We’d like to in-source as much as we can,” Mullan told the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board members during a budgeting meeting for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky said state employees do the bulk of the plowing in New Hampshire and Maine. She told the board “the general consensus” is it is cheaper to do so.

Mullan said he sympathized with those who may rely on the state contracts, but “I think first and foremost, we have to look at cost reductions in transportation, and that’s one of the primary reasons for transportation reform in the first place.”

The budget discussion came a year after Gov. Deval Patrick signed a new law integrating once-disparate state transportation services. Some 4,000 employees from five major transportation agencies were united in one organization, highlighted by the merger of the Turnpike Authority with the broader state transportation system.

The state created four new transportation divisions under the single agency and board: Highway, Rail and Transit, Aeronautics and Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Overall, the department is budgeting $698 million for its services, a 2.5 percent decline from last year attributed to lower bond costs.

That includes $322 million for the Highway Division, $59 million for the Registry Division, $44 million for the Transit Division and $470,000 for the Aeronautics Division.

The Highway allocation includes an unspecified sum to “improve customer service by providing mandatory training in ’courteous service’ for all staff direct communications with the public.”

Mullan said after the meeting: “When you try to rebuild people’s trust and faith in us, it’s a big thing; say, ’thank-you,’ admit your mistakes, move on.”

Year-to-year cost comparisons were not immediately available, and transportation officials said they will be difficult this year because of the merger that took place four months into the last fiscal year.

The dearth of data was compounded by the late release of the budget document. While the June 21 “special meeting” to approve the budget was announced last year, a broad overview of the spending — as well as the division line items — was not released until minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start.

In highlighting the merger last year, both Patrick and Mullan pledged innovation and transparency at the new department.

In recent months, however, the department extended its contract with the MBTA’s rail provider with no public notice. In December, it also approved $23 million in federal stimulus spending and $11 million in MBTA bond financing without prior public notice.

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