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Pike chief to cut jobs to revive agency

Paints grim picture of finances, aging tunnels and roads

Email|Print| Text size + By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 20, 2008

The new chief of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority offered a bleak assessment of his agency's culture and finances yesterday, saying he will cut back on the number of toll collectors and make other changes as he looks to balance the budget, restore competence, and minimize future toll increases.

Alan LeBovidge, hired as executive director in November, said the authority is like a country cowed by a mix of "dictatorship and an absolute monarchy," where employees are afraid to do anything that will get them noticed and depend on consultants to avoid taking responsibility.

It will take 12 to 18 months to get the agency running efficiently, but, even then, some deeper financial problems would not be solved, he said.

"Unfortunately, when I took this job, I had a sense that there was a simple solution," LeBovidge said.

The Turnpike Authority, like other transportation agencies in the state, has been swimming against a multibillion-dollar tide of debt as its workers attempt to recover from management and financial stumbles, mostly associated with the Big Dig. LeBovidge delivered yesterday's remarks to Turnpike Authority board members as part of his 60-day assessment of the agency at the request of Bernard Cohen, state transportation secretary and chairman of the authority's board.

The meeting demonstrated that problems will hit LeBovidge on many fronts. One group of consultants explained to board members why the authority's investment strategies were causing higher debt loads than expected. Another group said the authority's bridges and tunnels need more repairs than the agency can afford.

LeBovidge is not finished making changes, and one strategy is clear: cut payroll. He has let go a lobbyist, a community relations specialist, and a landscape architect. He said he will convert at least four tollbooths from manual collections to Fast Lane, something board members have been urging. The authority has been discounting tolls and reducing the price of transponders to draw more users to the Fast Lane program.

"We have 204 lanes; 100 of them are manual," LeBovidge said. "We're looking at what's the right balance. . . . How far we go will depend on a gradual analysis of each lane."

After the authority spends about $250,000 to convert the booths, it will save $500,000 a year on those four lanes, LeBovidge said. He could not say how many employees would lose their jobs.

He acknowledged that further job cuts would meet with resistance from unions. Representatives from Teamsters Union Local 127, which represents toll collectors, were not available for comment yesterday, according to a secretary.

LeBovidge has been appointing new managers to lead each department and has asked them to find further cost cuts and to reduce their dependence on consultants, he said.

He will need help from the Legislature for some of his plans, including a bill to pass on maintenance costs of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the greenway's conservancy and an effort to halt an annual $750,000 contribution to a state-mandated fund to boost tourism.

He will also need help from the financial sector. The authority is trying to refinance debt worth $127 million. In 2001, the agency took advantage of low interest rates by entering into complex financial agreements known as swaptions with Swiss financial giant UBS AG. The agreement has been costing the authority $300,000 a month since January, up from an earlier estimate of $200,000.

"That is a very significant, significant item," he said. "If we can't solve that, we can't solve anything."

Even as financial issues mount, the authority must find a way to keep roads drivable and safe. That issue came into focus when Gary Klein, an engineering consultant hired to review all the roads, tunnels, and bridges under the authority's purview, said the Sumner Tunnel, which opened in 1934, and the Callahan Tunnel, which opened in 1961, are deteriorating because of their age. And there are some areas in the Ted Williams Tunnel ceiling that engineers cannot gain access to because there is no crawl space.

Workers have spent months removing concrete from the Sumner and Callahan ceilings and others along the turnpike, so chunks will not fall on drivers. The Sumner had to be closed at night for three weeks in the fall so workers could remove larger pieces of the old ceiling.

Klein said that the conditions in the Sumner Tunnel do not pose an immediate risk, but that major work will be required eventually.

"This is a 70-year-old ceiling, and it's probably reached its service life," said Klein, of Wiss, Janney, Elstner and Associates.

Klein has not completed his review. He said turnpike crews are doing a good job fixing emergency items quickly and are about halfway through a list of less urgent repairs. The authority delayed a five-year list of $250 million in needed longer-term repairs late last year because the board lacked the money to pay for them.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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