By Matt Viser and Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
The Massachusetts House and Senate approved a transportation reform package this afternoon, despite the strenuous objections of lawmakers concerned about the impact it would have on union workers employed by a new transportation mega-agency.
The bill was approved by a 27-11 vote in the Senate and a 130-25 vote in the House. It now heads to the governor's desk.
Representative Joseph Wagner, House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the new law would be a "benefit to every citizen in this commonwealth."
The votes came after Massachusetts labor unions issued a harsh denunciation of the compromise legislation announced by leaders of the two chambers Wednesday night.
"It eliminates all unions at the [Massachusetts] Turnpike Authority and takes no regard for collective bargaining," said Robert F. Cullinane, head of the Teamsters local union 127, which represents toll-takers. "We thought we were voting for Democrats up here."
The Massachusetts AFL-CIO sent a letter to all lawmakers today, urging them to vote against the legislation. If they didn't, the letter threatened, they could risk losing the endorsement of the state's most powerful union.
Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said unions were asking not to have to "suffer disproportionately due to these difficult times, and that we are not forced to give up our most basic rights."
The sweeping transportation overhaul would consolidate a number of state transportation agencies into a single Department of Transportation. The bill would also include elimination of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, an agency that has long been a symbol of bloat and inefficiency.
Governor Deval Patrick said this afternoon that he and his staff were studying the bill. “Listen, I applaud the Legislature for taking a very important step forward in transportation reform," he said. "The bill, on first review, contains a lot of the efficiencies and the changes that we were looking for. But it’s a 175-page bill and we’re going to analyze it, and analyze it, and analyze it thoroughly for cost savings and see that all of the cost savings are in there before I offer comment.”
Patrick has threatened to veto the Legislature's proposed sales tax increase, from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, unless lawmakers first approve reforms that he finds acceptable on pension, ethics, and transportation laws.
The Legislature approved pension reforms last week. Meanwhile, legislators are trying to make progress on an ethics reform package that they hope to release tonight and vote on Friday. There have been disagreements between the House and the Senate over whether or not to ban all gifts to public employees.
"We want to finalize that today," said Senator Frederick Berry, a Peabody Democrat and the Senate's top negotiator on ethics reform.
One key provision of the transportation reform bill would dramatically scale back the benefits given to employees of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, considered some of the most generous in the country, for an estimated savings of at least $30 million a year.
The transportation compromise does not, however, provide new revenue for the state’s ailing transportation agencies or immediately negate the need for increases in Turnpike tolls or fares on the MBTA. Whether it will be necessary to raise tolls or fares, and by how much, will be dictated in large part by the state budget.
Patrick had proposed a 19-cent-a-gallon increase in the state’s gasoline tax to help the agencies, while the House and Senate have earmarked a portion of a sales tax hike to use for transportation needs. Patrick has vowed to veto the Legislature’s proposed sales tax unless lawmakers first approve reforms that he finds acceptable.
Restructuring the state’s complex transportation system has been a priority on Beacon Hill for years, but took on added urgency last year as the agencies that run roads, rail, and bridges teetered on the edge of insolvency under the weight of Big Dig debt.
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