Patrick losing control of transportation debate

Gov. Deval Patrick is quickly losing control of the debate over state transportation funding and management.

The governor's vague proposal (spelled out in a Nov. 13 op-ed column) to abolish the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, raise tolls and Registry of Motor Vehicles fees, and consolidate transportation agencies isn't getting a lot of support. The Turnpike Authority board on Nov. 14 did give preliminary approval to steep increases in tunnel and road fees, but it did so reluctantly, with most members saying they preferred spreading the burden of Big Dig debt by raising the state's gasoline tax.

Since then, the debate has begun to shift. Lawmakers representing the suburbs west and north of Boston are pressing for a gasoline tax increase instead of toll hikes, which would hurt their constituents primarily. Their effort gained considerable momentum on Wednesday when House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who is looking to solidify support among House members, said he would back a gas tax increase.

Senate President Therese Murray and Steven Baddour, the Senate chairman of the Committee on Transportation, floated their own plan in an op-ed in today's Globe. The two senators called for a new agency with unidentified "additional sources of revenue" to oversee the Turnpike, the Massachusetts Highway Department, the MBTA, and regional transportation authorities. They also proposed a "public-private partnership" that would assume the functions of the Turnpike Authority. Presumably, they would have the state lease the Turnpike's roads and tunnels to a private business that would operate and maintain them in return for toll revenue.

Patrick is also encountering resistance from the Massachusetts Port Authority to his plan to abolish the Turnpike Authority. Patrick wants to take down the Turnpike tolls west of Route 128 and turn that stretch of road over to the state highway department. He wants to turn the Turnpike's roads and tunnels within Route 128, and presumably its $2.2 billion debt as well, over to a new division within Massport. The new Massport division would also take control of the Tobin Bridge and use the millions of dollars it generates to help pay Big Dig debt instead of supporting the agency's seaport operations.

Massport officials say they are working cooperatively with the administration, but they are also nervous about being saddled with the Big Dig debt. They are asking for as much as $5 million a year in state aid to ease their concerns.

After a Massport board meeting today, agency chairman John Quelch issued a statement saying the agency was making progress in its negotiations with the Patrick administration. "The Massport board remains mindful of our fiduciary obligation to ensure the long-term sustained financial health of this agency," he said. "The board is equally mindful of our civic obligations to provide safe and secure airport and seaport facilities and to promote the economic development of the Commonwealth."

At a press conference later in the day, Patrick said an increase in the gas tax "is not my first choice, but I am not hostile to it." He later added: "It's a crappy time to be asking people for increases in any broad-based tax."

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Patrick said that if lawmakers want to have a debate about new transportation revenues they should have a comprehensive debate, one that addresses not only the abolishment of the Turnpike Authority and its toll plazas but also deals with MBTA debt and centralized management of transportation agencies. He expressed doubt that such a debate could take place quickly enough to avoid the Turnpike toll increases slated to take effect in March or April. "We've got some bills to pay right now," he said.

The three most powerful officials in state government — the governor, the Senate president, and the House speaker — now all have their own transportation plans. Let the horse-trading begin.