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Patrick Goes Back to the Future With Turnpike Authority

Fri June 22, 2007 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) A year ago, Gov. Mitt Romney seized control of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority following a fatal Big Dig ceiling collapse. The Republican pledged a new era of openness. Next month, the state’s new governor, Deval Patrick, seizes control of the Turnpike. The Democrat is pledging the same thing.

Patrick promises to bring sunshine and best business practices to a notoriously secretive and patronage-laden agency, familiar rhetoric he hopes to make reality with a back-to-the-future hierarchy.

Patrick is poised to hire an executive director to run the organization, completing an operational circle that began in 2002. At that time, Turnpike Chairman Matthew Amorello took over daily operations from then-Executive Director Richard Capka. The governor at the time, Jane Swift, argued the agency would be best run by the leader of its governing board.

Amorello lasted until last summer, when Romney pressured him to step down following the accident that killed Milena Del Valle of Boston. John Cogliano, who was Romney’s transportation secretary, has served as chairman ever since.

Now, by reverting back to daily leadership in the form of an executive director, the Patrick administration believes it can successfully reinvent the wheel.

“The goal is to de-emphasize politics and emphasize sound, professional day-to-day management,’’ said a top administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the governor had yet to speak about his plans as of press time.

Others aren’t so sure.

“I’ve heard those tear-stained melodies before,’’ said Christy Mihos, a former member of the Turnpike Authority board who got thrown off the panel by Swift for opposing toll increases she favored, only to be reinstated by court order.

In truth, the Legislature set events in motion in 2004 by approving a transportation-consolidation bill that called for making the state’s secretary of transportation serve a dual role as chairman of the Turnpike board.

Romney argued that making the board chairman directly accountable to the governor would improve operations at the Turnpike, which has presided over construction problems and ballooning costs at the Dig, the most expensive highway project in U.S. history.

The bill also required the hiring of an executive director, to be paid the same salary as the commissioner of the state Highway Department. The new structure will resemble that at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which has a general manager reporting to a board of directors chaired by the state transportation secretary, currently Bernard Cohen.

“The problem before was that you never really had administration oversight, with a secretary serving as board chair and shaping board policy,’’ said Sen. Steve Baddour, D-Methuen, who helped craft the bill as co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

“Hopefully the board will start running like other agencies,’’ Baddour said. “I know the T is under a lot of pressure, but it’s run openly, it’s run professionally.’’

Mihos isn’t so sure.

He argues that Cohen, who was appointed by Patrick, is fully capable of overseeing both the transportation department and the Turnpike, and uniquely qualified to do both. To Mihos’ mind, not using Cohen to run the Turnpike only underscores the inefficiency of not having the agency folded into other transportation operations.

The secretary came to Massachusetts from New York City, where he led the Federal Transit Administration’s Lower Manhattan Recovery Office. In that capacity, he supervised a $4.55 billion program to rebuild and restore transportation facilities damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Cohen refused a request to be interviewed, preferring instead to wait for the handover at the end of the month.

Cohen previously worked at the MBTA, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, as well as deputy managing director of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which took over commuter rail service in Massachusetts from Amtrak.

Among his future challenges is managing debt repayment for the Dig, overseeing billions in infrastructure repair across the state and determining if tolls can ever be taken down on the Pike.

“This is a well-schooled and well-intentioned CEO that has experience doing these things,’’ Mihos said. “Really, the Turnpike has outlived its usefulness. Put it down, merge the two entities [the Highway Department and Turnpike] and get it done.’’

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