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Therese Murray and Steven Baddour

Transportation: reform before revenue

By Therese Murray and Steven Baddour
November 20, 2008
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REFORM before revenue. The Senate has consistently applied this philosophy in its reform proposals for transportation. This philosophy seeks to ensure that tax- and toll-payer money is spent effectively and efficiently so we don't pump new funding into a broken system. It has allowed the Legislature to advance an agenda that ensures we aren't leaving scarce resources on the table because of inefficiencies and poor planning.

The idea that we simply cannot spend our way out of our transportation finance problem has allowed us to take on issues that were previously thought impossible to reform. Since 2004, and particularly this past year, the Legislature has enacted measures that dramatically change the way transportation projects are planned, executed, and paid for. We have been deliberate in our methods and clear in our goal.

The future of transportation reform, however, is at a crossroads. Last week, Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to dismantle the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and break the agency in two. The Western Turnpike System would be essentially toll-free and folded into the Massachusetts Highway Department; the former Metropolitan Highway System - all former MTA roads within Route 128 as well as the roads, bridges, and tunnels of the Big Dig - would fall under the purview of a new division within Massport.

Additionally, the Turnpike Authority's $2.2 billion of Big Dig debt would be paid for through some unspecified combination of tolls, additional contributions from Massport, and increased Registry of Motor Vehicle fees.

While this plan accomplishes the laudable goal of eliminating the Turnpike Authority, tax- and toll-payers deserve public consideration of a more comprehensive plan. Such a plan should not simply reallocate Big Dig debt in a manner that may be unsustainable for Massport, nor should it disregard the recommendations of the Transportation Finance Commission. Instead, it must achieve unprecedented administrative efficiencies and help address the tenuous financial condition of the MBTA and regional transit authorities.

This is not a dismissal of the administration's effort to develop a workable proposal for the turnpike. It is necessary, however, to look at other serious alternatives for consideration. To that end, the Senate intends to consider at least two alternatives in the first six months of the upcoming 2009-2010 session.

First, the Senate will consider the advantages and drawbacks of creating a new, unified surface transportation agency for Massachusetts that would combine some or all of the financing and administration for the Turnpike, MassHighway, the MBTA, and regional transportation authorities. Such a combination would likely require additional sources of revenue, even with the benefit of new administrative efficiencies, but we would quantify those needs and evaluate potential sources.

The Senate will also consider the feasibility of developing and engaging a public-private partnership to assume the functions of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Before we create yet another public entity to continue collecting tolls inside Route 128, wouldn't it make more sense for the state to evaluate the possibilities of a public-private partnership to perform this function and absorb some of the financial risk and deferred maintenance obligations of the Big Dig?

Engaging the private sector in the task of operating and maintaining the former assets of the Turnpike Authority may be the best way to ensure the continued growth of our state's transportation capacity. With strict oversight, well-negotiated lease and tolling terms, profit-sharing, and the understanding that revenues would go toward our transportation infrastructure needs, Massachusetts has the potential to take advantage of a market eager to invest in income-producing transportation assets, instead of burdening another quasi-public state agency.

Such a partnership might also make a comprehensive transportation plan far more feasible.

We must insist on reform before revenue. Unfortunately, we cannot tell Massachusetts tax-, toll- and fare-payers that their money is being well-spent right now, and we should not rest until we can deliver that assurance.

The administration has offered a serious proposal for consideration, albeit with many unanswered questions.

The Legislature should consider these critical issues and make sure the public is involved in the process. Citizens can offer input and feedback at www.masstransfortomorrow.blogspot.com. Together, we can get the right plan for Massachusetts.

Therese Murray is president of the Massachusetts Senate. Steven Baddour is Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

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