Cahill calls for action on Pike lawsuit

Advocates settling over toll litigation

The Weston tollbooths on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The Weston tollbooths on the Massachusetts Turnpike. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill joined the battle over turnpike tolls yesterday, urging the governor and attorney general to take “immediate action’’ toward resolving a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Turnpike commuters who contend that their tolls have been illegally diverted to pay the cost of the $15 billion Big Dig.

“This matter is extremely time-sensitive,’’ Cahill, chief financial officer of Massachusetts, said in a letter asserting that the state should act before an Aug. 6 hearing, at which a Middlesex Superior Court judge could issue an injunction ordering the state to stop spending turnpike tolls on Big Dig expenses.

The letter did not recommend any specific action. Amy Birmingham, Cahill’s deputy chief of staff, said Cahill is asking the sides to delay the hearing and try to settle the case.

Turnpike Authority executive director Jeffrey Mullan said he was “disappointed that the treasurer has chosen to insert himself in an active lawsuit in a way that could compromise the Turnpike Authority’s defense.’’

“The Turnpike Authority’s legal team is vigorously defending against the litigation, which would cause excessive harm to the taxpayers and tollpayers of the Commonwealth,’’ Mullan said.

In the past two months, he said, the administration has set a course that avoided a toll increase and prompted credit rating increases that will save the state $190 million.

The plaintiffs argue that even though the state’s new transportation law, which took effect July 1, requires the state to stop the practice, toll proceeds are still being funneled to the Big Dig.

Executive Office of Transportation spokesman Colin Durrant said the state has not stopped spending toll money on the Big Dig, adding, “We’re still evaluating and analyzing all sections of the enormous transportation reform legislation.’’

Cahill said in the letter that he is concerned that once the state takes over the Turnpike Authority Nov. 1, it could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, including the more than $400 million the tollpayers say they paid in illegal tolls over the past three years.

Cahill also suggested that the state could be saddled with a bill for hundreds of millions of dollars more if a bank that loaned the Turnpike Authority money through a complex investment called an interest rate swap demands immediate repayment. But Governor Deval Patrick’s administration said last week that the interest rate swap controversy had been resolved.

The treasurer, who recently left the Democratic Party, is mulling a run for governor as an unenrolled candidate. He would not comment yesterday on the letter.

But his general counsel, Grace Lee, said that he did not write the letter to take on the governor. “It was not politically motivated, but financially motivated,’’ she said.

The governor’s office declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who is helping the more than 2,000 tollpayers who have so far signed onto the lawsuit, praised Cahill for “seeking to find a positive and constructive solution now for this decade-long turnpike toll inequity.

“We hope the treasurer will be joined by Governor Patrick and legislative leaders . . . in solving this as a matter of public policy, rather than by litigation,’’ he said in a statement. “This is the best and cheapest way to ensure a comprehensive, expedited, open, honest, and fair resolution.’’

Sandra Murphy, a nurse from Natick who is a lead plaintiff in the suit, said, “I am so glad to see Beacon Hill is again hearing us and glad someone in a leadership position like Tim Cahill is saying it is time to take our efforts seriously.’’