LAST WEEK, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority pulled the plug on the beloved blue lights of the Zakim Bridge. Over the holiday weekend, motorists faced long lines - especially on the Pike at the Route 128 tolls - because of a change in turnpike policy on how to deal with toll takers who call in sick.
The Pike looks like it's playing hardball with drivers: This is how bad it gets. Give us more money or we'll shoot this puppy.
But turnpike chief Alan LeBovidge insists that is not the case. "I don't have a threatening bone in my body," he said.
What LeBovidge does have is an urgent need to convince lawmakers to come up with new revenue so the Pike can pay down $2.2 billion of mostly Big Dig-related debt. Governor Patrick is proposing a 19-cent gas tax hike, which this page strongly favors. LeBovidge said he is "agnostic" on how new money is generated. In the meantime, LeBovidge said he will cut costs any way he can.
Turning off the decorative Zakim Bridge lights saves $5,000 a month, and LeBovidge said it does not undermine road safety. One of the bridge's designers mailed a check for $15,000 in hopes of inspiring more donations to keep it illuminated. But that's no real solution to the underlying money issue.
Meanwhile, there were fewer toll takers at several toll plazas on the Easter holiday because Pike officials decided to stop paying overtime to replace toll takers who called in sick. LeBovidge said he did not know how many toll takers called in sick, or whether the number was higher than usual. He also blamed the miles of backup on drivers who lack Fast Lane transponders. A day late, Patrick yesterday demanded a "full accounting" of what happened.
LeBovidge is right when he points out that people want it all: no new taxes, no toll hikes, and superior service. "I can't provide Rolls Royce service on a Chevette income. That's the problem."
But that's only part of the problem. The broader problem is that over the years, the public wasn't told the truth. State officials tapped into the Pike's borrowing power to pay for the Big Dig. "Everyone knew it was a shell game," LeBovidge acknowledges.
Now the game is up on the Patrick administration's watch. The bills are coming due, and the Pike needs money; the agency is set to raid its reserves, to the tune of about $15 million, to close an operating deficit before the end of the fiscal year.
But if LeBovidge can't keep the lights on - or get enough toll takers to come to work - the public is as likely to question his leadership as to support new revenues. These fiascos have at least drawn attention to the problem. Now it's up to the governor and his emissaries to make the case for responsible funding.