Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey said yesterday that the Romney administration is gaining support in the state Legislature for merging the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the state Highway Department, even as she criticized lawmakers for protecting patronage jobs at the authority.
Legislative leaders rejected the merger last year, and repeated their objections last month. But Healey, standing in for Governor Mitt Romney, who was late returning from the Super Bowl in Houston, appeared at the Transportation Building with leaders from two independent think tanks to provide "the straight facts" on how the merger could save $20 million a year.
The briefing was held at the Transportation Building because both the authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department have offices there.
"If these two agencies share the same building, why can't they share the same legal department, public relations department, and same set of books?" Healey said. "The answer is, they can."
A Turnpike Authority spokesman, Doug Hanchett, said that chairman Matthew J. Amorello had no comment.
Authority officials have previously said the state would be increasing its indebtedness by taking on the turnpike's $2.5 billion in bonds, and Romney's finance chief, Eric Kriss, has warned against taking on any more debt.
But Healey said the state could easily absorb that debt, in part because of the built-in revenue stream of $410 million from tolls. "We're being more honest to bring it onto our books in this manner," she said.
The turnpike authority was "never meant to be self-perpetuating," Healey said, but has "always found a way to survive" by issuing new bonds and doling out jobs "for friends of friends" in the Legislature.
"It's difficult to endanger those jobs, of people you know," she said. But a one-time estimated savings of $190 million that would be freed up by the turnpike merger could be used for new education initiatives that Romney has proposed, she said. Those programs, she warned, may not be funded without savings from the proposed merger.
Asked if the merger would go anywhere on Beacon Hill, she said, "I think some are listening. We're reaching out."
David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, appeared with Healey and said the administration's estimate of $20 million in annual savings from the merger was too low. The state could save up to $57 million per year by merging the turnpike authority into the state highway department, he said.
Stephen Adams, president of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, who also appeared to support the merger, said the state "can no longer afford the wasteful and inefficient duplication of effort represented by the turnpike authority."
Romney has made the merger a top priority in his proposed budget this year, calling the turnpike authority "a rogue agency." The administration has issued a "fact of the day" to reporters almost on a daily basis beginning last month, detailing alleged administrative bloat while the turnpike's roads are maintained no better than the state's, and criticizing the authority's financial practices.
Beacon Hill observers have likened the campaign to the ultimately successful bid by Romney to remove University of Massachusetts president William M. Bulger from office.
The turnpike authority has 1,137 employees with a $403.5 million budget, and controls the 137-mile Massachusetts Turnpike from the New York border to Route 1A in East Boston, including the Ted Williams, Sumner, and Callahan tunnels. It also oversees the $14.6 billion Big Dig and maintains the new Central Artery from the Shraffts building to Southampton Street, including the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Amorello's salary is $205,000.
The Massachusetts Highway Department has 1,734 employees with a budget of $767.6 million, and maintains 9,505 lane miles of roadways and 2,900 bridges. The commissioner of the department, John Cogliano, is paid an annual salary of $106,934.
Anthony Flint can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.