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Cahill: Bridge plan too costly

But Patrick's $3.8b proposal gains key backing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 10, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill yesterday disagreed with the governor's $3.8 billion plan to repair 411 bridges across the state, saying the proposal would excessively mortgage the state's financial future, and suggested the bond amount be cut by half.

"We're not going to break the bank to do it," Cahill, who is in charge of managing state debt, said in an interview. "This is big and it's big on top of a lot of other big proposals. It may not be the time to take on something this large."

Despite Cahill's reservations, the proposal picked up key backers immediately, including House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, Senate President Therese Murray, and organized labor. Legislative support is crucial because it will require passage of a special bond bill.

Governor Deval L. Patrick officially unveiled yesterday the proposal to accelerate bridge repairs across the state, which administration officials believe would spur the economy and allow the state to fix its infrastructure at a lower cost than if it waited.

"By acting now, we can cut that deficient bridges backlog in half in eight years, avoid construction inflation, and create thousands of jobs," Patrick told academics, students, and business and political leaders yesterday during an economic address at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "Our plan to address deficient bridges will have shovels in the ground and people at work in 90 days."

A Globe story published yesterday, citing preliminary draft documents distributed by the administration this week in advance of the speech, said the governor expected the initiative to create 23,000 construction jobs. The administration yesterday avoided using that figure publicly, with one aide suggesting the estimate was "10,000 to 15,000 jobs" and others saying they preferred to use "thousands."

Overly optimistic job-creation estimates bedeviled Patrick's ill-fated proposal to license three casinos around the state.

In his speech yesterday, Patrick outlined the general sketches of his plan but avoided specifics, an indication that the final price tag - and how that would affect the job estimates - is under negotiation. Administration sources said the governor is willing to accept a lower number than $3.8 billion in borrowing.

To pay for the bridgework, Patrick would increase the state's bonding capacity. The state currently has a self-imposed limit for newly issued bonds of $1.5 billion a year, which is scheduled to increase to $2 billion a year in 2012. In order to pay for the projects sooner, the Patrick administration would frontload $2.8 billion that the state would otherwise spend from 2014 to 2028, and spend the money over the next eight years instead.

The state would also refinance $366 million in outstanding debt from 20 years to 30 years, freeing up another $1 billion now but costing more over the long run because the state would be paying interest for 10 additional years.

The strategy makes sense, administration officials said, because the state will save money by putting construction out to bid sooner, before inflation drives the prices up. Administration officials suggest that the state would save $1.8 billion over 20 years, based on a 7 percent inflation rate.

But Cahill and other fiscal watchdogs argue that Patrick's plan would add to a state debt burden that is already the highest per capita in the country.

There are several other major bond projects before the Legislature, including $2 billion targeted for higher education and $1.4 billion for environmental projects. In addition, a $3.5 billion transportation bond bill that the House passed Tuesday would help fund 397 additional bridges.

Cahill estimates that the $3.8 billion bond would require $3.2 billion in interest payments, putting the overall cost for the governor's bridge proposal at $7 billion, a figure the Patrick administration did not dispute.

Cahill unveiled in January his own plan to fix 10 bridges that are most in need of repair, which he said would cost $700 million, and he added yesterday that he supports the goal of the governor's plan. But the treasurer, after a briefing from administration officials, said he advised Patrick late Tuesday afternoon against the $3.8 billion plan.

"We have been tempted too often to figure out how to get dollars now that have repercussions for the future. We're borrowing against the future," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "That's a significant downside to the proposal."

DiMasi applauded the plan yesterday, and when asked whether the state could afford the bonding, said, "Yes, I think we can."

The speaker, who often tweaks the governor even when he is complimenting him, also said the borrowing plan should have been put forward earlier - instead of Patrick's failed casino gambling plan.

"This is the kind of focus that I thought we should [have been] taking in the last three or four months instead of other issues that were dominating the landscape at the time," DiMasi said.

Murray left the speech without addressing reporters, but later put out a statement saying "by taking action now, we can start to make up for decades of neglect." Her spokesman said she supports the governor's proposed price tag of $3.8 billion.

The debate over fixing bridges is occurring at a time when the state has been struggling to find enough sources of new revenue to keep existing services and fund several ambitious spending programs.

In his 25-minute speech yesterday, Patrick used optimistic rhetoric to calm fears of a looming recession and outline several initiatives that could help the state prepare for rocky economic times, including the creation of 16 regional districts throughout the state where his administration will help streamline permitting for new developments.

The state's Department of Housing and Community Development would create a $20 million fund to purchase, redevelop, and sell foreclosed and vacant properties.

"We must continue to take actions that will keep the Commonwealth's economy moving forward," Patrick said. "Government alone cannot create new jobs, but we create conditions that foster a culture of opportunity."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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