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Governor reportedly discussing merger of transport agencies

Options offered to key legislators

Governor Deval Patrick's administration is quietly floating plans with key legislators to merge several of the state's transportation bureaucracies, in hope of saving money and creating a more efficient system, but he is months from proposing the sweeping changes, several sources said yesterday.

The main plan would merge the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority with the state Highway Department and create a board that would also oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said a state transportation official.

Such a combination would put the state's most significant roads, its subway system, and its commuter rail system under a single board, giving the governor more authority to set transportation policy.

Authority over major roads is now divided between two agencies, and a third agency controls the rails.

"It is not imminent; the plans are still months away," said one administration source.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because Patrick has yet to outline the plans publicly and the plans remain subject to change as officials canvass legislators.

In their briefings, administration officials have not detailed how much money would be saved or how many jobs, if any, would be eliminated.

The combined board would have the authority to issue bonds to pay for improvements to roads, bridges, and rail service.

Patrick, a Democrat, is under pressure to save money on transportation. Two weeks ago, a board appointed by the Legislature to address transportation needs and debts recommended raising the gasoline tax.

The Transportation Finance Board estimates the state needs nearly $20 billion in the next 20 years to repair and maintain the transportation system. The commission recommended cost savings, but members said eliminating waste would not save enough to solve the problem.

Legislators are waiting for details on Patrick's plan before they make a judgment, one of the sources said.

"If you look at the way our system is structured, with all of these agencies working as independent silos, this structure has been with us since the 1950s, so you need to move on," said James Aloisi Jr., a former transportation official who served on the finance commission. He was briefed on some of Patrick's plans.

Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, made merging the Turnpike Authority and Highway Department a major crusade during his administration but was thwarted by the Legislature. Romney estimated the state could save $20 million by eliminating administrative redundancies, but some members of the Legislature said they were worried about taking on the Turnpike Authority's debt.

Even with Romney's departure, combining agencies has remained an important option as officials continue to face major transportation budget problems.

Last month, members of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation discussed measures that would help the state find the money needed for road, bridge, and rail improvements.

Senate chairman Steven A. Baddour, Democrat of Methuen, said at a Sept. 11 hearing that merging agencies is something the state should consider.

Cost savings from merging agencies could be combined with new revenues, and the state should not shy away from considering a gas tax increase or placing tolls on Interstate 93, Baddour said at the time.

Patrick has a major advantage in attempting to merge the panels: The Turnpike Authority chairman is Patrick's appointee, Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen. Romney had a nemesis at the Turnpike Authority, Matthew J. Amorello, who resisted Romney's efforts to remove him as chairman but was forced to resign after last year's fatal ceiling collapse in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel.

On Thursday, the Turnpike Authority board is scheduled to consider a series of toll increases, including one that could double the fee for the Ted Williams and Sumner tunnels to $6 for cash-paying customers.

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