BOSTON (AP) Under city streets, the traffic cruises through the new Interstate 93 tunnels, while above ground, bulldozers and backhoes smooth the ground where trees, grass and flowers will soon take root as the Big Dig nears completion.
But between the offices of Gov. Mitt Romney and Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello, the Big Dig dust will continue to fly as long as both men stay in their current jobs.
Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) stymied Romney’s effort to oust the Turnpike chairman by deciding not to issue an advisory opinion Romney requested on whether he can fire Amorello, who has repeatedly refused Romney’s demand that he resign.
Lacking legal muscle from an SJC opinion, the likelihood of Romney dumping Amorello dimmed considerably. The governor’s office has learned from the messy and protracted court battle that ensued when one of Romney’s predecessor, Jane Swift, tried to fire two Turnpike board members in 2001. The SJC reinstated the two, and one of them, Christy Mihos, sued. Four years later, the case is still going on in federal court.
But the Turnpike battle is likely to continue, given that Romney has so far been frustrated in his efforts to fulfill a campaign pledge to merge the Turnpike Authority and the Highway Department.
After the SJC denial of his request, Romney renewed his calls for a merger of the two agencies. That goal, said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, is neither personal nor political.
“It has nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with good management and saving taxpayer dollars,” Fehrnstrom said.
Alan Schroeder, an expert on politics and the media at Northeastern University, isn’t so sure. Everything the governor does now will be viewed in light of his acknowledged presidential ambitions, Schroeder said.
Still, he doubts that the ongoing battles with Amorello will get him much political mileage.
“I think the problem is that he’s not going to be able to take the Big Dig as an abstract issue and personally pin the tail on Matt Amorello,” Schroeder said. “If that was his strategy, he needed to personalize the conflict a little more. I just don’t see it playing out that way.”
In the latest battle with the Turnpike, Romney’s administration said it will withhold $1.2 million in state money for project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, saying the money was destined for repairing tunnel leaks, which the contractor is supposed to pay for.
“We have asked the Turnpike Authority to come down and present us with justification as to why these moneys are warranted,” said John Carlisle, spokesman of the Executive Office of Transportation.
The Turnpike Authority released a statement saying that construction contractors are paying for the leak repairs, and the $1.2 million will pay for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff’s oversight of the repairs.
Asked about Romney’s pledge to continue his efforts to overhaul the Turnpike Authority, its Spokeswoman Mariellen Burns said, “We were hopeful that the [SJC] decision would put an end to the politics of the issue.
“It’s unfortunate that there will always be those who play politics, when it should be about public policy and public safety,” she said.
Andy Paven, a spokesman of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, when asked about the threat to withhold the $1.2 million, said the company doesn’t discuss contract details publicly, but added that “We always said we’d pay our fair share of work related to leaks or defects in the Big Dig.’”
Asked if the fighting between the administration and the Turnpike Authority had a political element, he said, “It’s certainly becoming the political season in Massachusetts, but that’s a subject we don’t comment on.”