The former state official who championed the public-private coalition that widened Route 3 north of Boston a decade ago is proposing a new partnership south of the city to widen Route 3 between Braintree and Norwell and pay for it with toll lanes.
The proposal, from a team led by a former Massachusetts deputy transportation secretary, Ned Corcoran, cites as a model the Virginia Department of Transportation’s newly opened high-speed toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.
Buses and carpools can use segregated lanes on Virginia’s Beltway (Interstate 495) for free, while single-occupancy vehicles pay a toll that varies, based on traffic congestion and time of day. The highway remains publicly owned, but private companies shouldered much of the cost for adding lanes and rebuilding bridges and overpasses in exchange for the right to collect the tolls.
“It’s something that I’ve thought for a long time needs to happen here in Massachusetts in order to find ways to expand infrastructure, and Route 3 south is a road that isn’t [otherwise] going to get redone for decades,” Corcoran said.
As a lawyer based in Quincy, Corcoran has worked in recent years on successful smaller-scale partnerships in New England and assisted a team that considered bidding on the billion-dollar Virginia project.
Massachusetts officials say they are not interested in widening Route 3 south of Boston but are intrigued by the possibility of public-private partnerships to help the state address aging infrastructure or accelerate other projects.
“They had a very interesting proposal,” said Frank DePaola, highway administrator for the state Department of Transportation, who met with Corcoran’s team recently. “It’s an intriguing process to do it, to fund public construction using private money, then recover it over a period of time.”
Drivers who traverse the 21 miles of Route 3 between Route 128 and the New Hampshire border know Corcoran’s work, if not his name. As chief counsel for the Massachusetts Highway Department in the 1990s, he encouraged a unique approach to expedite a stalled plan to widen that highway to three lanes from two in each direction, and to complete it in less than five years.
Traditionally, the state asks companies to bid on permitting and design for a project, then takes those permits and plans and asks others to bid on construction. The state pays for those contracts at the time of the work by issuing bonds, repaying debt over decades using federal grants and state taxes.
But a cap on the amount the state can borrow limits the number of transportation projects pursued at one time, meaning some are postponed or broken into bite-size chunks. One example is the widening of Route 128 between Wellesley and Randolph, a project once expected to take five years before being fragmented into six projects, each with separate contracts, over 15 years.
With the widening of what is known as Route 3 north, the state saved time by calling for planning, engineering, and construction companies to partner and bid on the design and construction as one package. They asked the winning team to finance the project itself and get paid back by the state over time, leaving public bonding capacity unaffected — a move that required special legislation.
Pairing design and construction for one streamlined bid has become the model for major projects in Massachusetts, but officials have moved cautiously on expanding private involvement.
The 2009 legislation that merged MassHighway and other agencies into one Department of Transportation established a commission to review future public-private partnerships — not just to pair government with private companies for design, construction, and financing but also for possible long-term operations and maintenance.
But that seven-member commission was never appointed. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Cyndi Roy said that was partly because other work associated with the creation of the department took priority, but also because of the challenge of finding volunteers with expertise who would not want to pursue contracts themselves.
But Corcoran’s proposal has spurred the state, which plans to fill the commission early in the new year, DePaola said.
Though especially interested in Route 3, Corcoran encouraged the state to consider partnerships across the Commonwealth. “It’s the next major wave of innovation,” he said. “There’s tremendous interest in pursuing this” from the private sector.
Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the council generally opposes widening Route 3, which might hasten sprawl at the expense of transit-centered development.
He endorsed private investment to speed projects the state can not immediately afford — if state and regional planners back them — but cautioned against ceding too much control.
“If you can build something and have a private entity be a part of it, especially on a capital project, that’s great,” he said. “If they mean privatization of public assets, I don’t think that’s what we want to do.”