Saturday, 2:15 PM
Senate approves bill to eliminate Turnpike Authority
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
The state Senate gave preliminary approval this afternoon to legislation that would eliminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority as it reorganizes the state's transportation system.
"We fundamentally altered the way we deliver transportation," said State Senator Steven Baddour, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation.
The 39-1 vote in the Senate comes as state transportation agencies are burdened by billions of dollars in debt, forcing officials to mull toll hikes on the Turnpike and fare hikes on the MBTA. The Senate's bill does not address how to pay off the debt, but Senate leaders estimated that by increasing efficiencies it could generate $6.5 billion in savings over 20 years.
Governor Deval Patrick has proposed a 19-cent gas tax increase, in addition to restructuring. Key legislators have so far balked at Patrick's figure, but many have agreed they will eventually have to raise the tax, without committing to a figure.
“This is an important piece of legislation for the Commonwealth,” Senate President Therese Murray said in a statement. “We need to consolidate and restructure first so we don’t throw money into a broken system that no one has confidence in anymore."
Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei said he was "especially pleased that the package is focused on implementing cost-saving reforms and efficiencies throughout our transportation system, and not on increasing the financial burden on the residents of Massachusetts in these difficult economic times."
The bill calls for current transportation agencies to be reorganized. A Massachusetts Surface Transportation Agency would be created, with two divisions. The Roads and Bridges Division would assume the duties of MassHighway, the Turnpike Authority, the Tobin Bridge, and Department of Conservation and Recreation parkways and bridges; the Public Transit Division would assume the duties of the MBTA and provide regional transit authorities with central oversight and funding, Murray's office said.
The Senate's bill shares some similarities with Patrick's restructuring proposal. Both, for example, would reduce fringe benefits for transit workers, now some of the most generous perks in the country. The bill would eliminate newly hired transit workers' ability to retire after 23 years, regardless of age, with pensions. They would instead need to reach the age of 55 and work at least 25 years at the MBTA, the same rules that apply to other state workers. The bill would also put their healthcare costs closer in line with other state workers, a change that would save an estimated $50 million a year.