Tuesday, November 11, 2008

For Whom the Turnpike Tolls...

Governor Deval Patrick, coming out with an extensive reorganization of the state's transportation apparatus, has proposed to dismantle the Turnpike as we know it and reassign its parts to the rest of the state infrastructure.

In short, the plan calls for turning over the Turnpike from 128/I-95 to Logan Airport over to the Massachusetts Port Authority. The Port Authority already operates and receives tolls for the Tobin Bridge. Its sister structures, the Sumner/Callahan Tunnels and the Ted Williams tunnel cross approximately the same body of water (Boston Harbor) and putting their operation along with the Boston Extension of the Turnpike (from 128 to the Ted Williams) under one roof is reasonable. Tolls beyond 128 would be abolished, excepting tolls at I-84 and the New York state line. It would not seem unreasonable to put tolls on I-395 as well to stymie insist toll dodgers, but whatever.

The plan requires approval from the Massachusetts General Court on Beacon Hill. Such a vote will not happen before January. Support is present in the Legislature and Patrick should not find it difficult to find support to dismantle an agency that long, long outlived its usefulness, tolls or not.

According to the Boston Globe, Legislators are wondering who will pick up the debt from the Turnpike Authority (it issued the bonds to build the Big Dig as the agency in charge), how will Massport start operating a system more complex than just one bridge, and how will it channel money appropriately. The last point, relates to federal rules about landing fees from airlines. Massport cannot use those moneys for non-airport expenses.

In any event, the proposal, if approved, could be Gov. Patrick's most important governmental shift and a major legacy. The Turnpike Authority, long the haven for patronage and waste would at last go the way of the Metropolitan District Commission and die an overdue death. The well-fed members of the Legislature will oppose on specious grounds. Those gripings will likely be silenced by what has brought this situation to the fore. The Turnpike Authority's finances are a mess. Battered by the bad economy, it faces financial ruin and with it the safety and well-being of the road and the Big Dig components themselves. Its financial failure would test the boundaries of the "authority" realm of government, which theoretically shields the state from liability. Were the Authority to go belly-up, however, wouldn't the state end up paying anyway.

Gov. Patrick's plan seems to avoid that. However, the transportation system needs more than a highway and money shell game. Serious questions need to be raised about the state's most indebted agency the MBTA. Should it be merged with the state's other scattered authorities to save money? What about the 20% of the state sales tax that, regardless of source goes to the MBTA? Not only is it unfair, but it has been insufficient. Sadly, if it were for paying for the Big Dig, tolls in and around Boston could be used to support the MBTA's buses and rails as is done in New York City.

Additionally, the Department of Recreation and Conservation has a number of roads in its portfolio. The money is not always there to keep them together, i.e. the Longfellow Bridge or Storrow Drive. As such, the DRC needed to borrow from the Highway Department to get money for repairs.

These transportation reforms that Gov. Patrick has introduced must be only the tip of the iceberg. If not, irreparable harm will come to the Commonwealth's infrastructure with or without an infusion of aid from an Obama White House. A bridge too far from stable in Minneapolis may appear suddenly in our backyards. Extreme? Yes. Alas it is not impossible and it should be.

Gov. Patrick also has another thing going for him. Although still in a rickety state long term politically, he has the benefit of being the Executive. The Wilkerson scandal and DiMasi debacle have rocked the Hill and the Legislature may be unable to show its normal chutzpah. Senators and Representatives may be asking "who's next?" Their own misdeeds may come to the fore. Moreover, guilty by association is always in vogue. The FBI's greatest gift was arresting Wilkerson now, rather than eight months ago when electoral opposition might materialize. Still, it might leave Gov. Patrick with the most credibility and integrity, and thus the capital to push his agenda: an agenda FINALLY on track.

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