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House approves a transportation transformation

Restructuring bill still faces changes

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill late last night to eliminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and reorganize the rest of the state transportation system, paving the way for a debate on increasing the state gas tax.

The wide-ranging bill would change the working conditions and fringe benefits for thousands of state workers, putting the transit system and most state highways under a single authority.

The Senate passed a similar bill two weeks ago and the two chambers are expected to work out a compromise before it goes to Governor Deval Patrick's desk. The key differences mostly involve the governing structure of the new transportation agency and changes in fringe benefits for MBTA employees.

The overhaul is considered the first step toward a more contentious debate over raising the gas tax. Patrick has proposed raising it 19 cents, making it the highest in the nation. He argues that such an increase is necessary to repair the state's aging infrastructure and prevent major toll hikes, MBTA fare increases, and service cuts.

Leaders in the House and Senate wanted to pass the restructuring bills first to demonstrate they are focusing on a strategy they call "reform before revenue," by reducing waste and inefficiency.

"Tonight's transportation vote represents a step forward for reform," said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in a statement after the bill was approved by a vote of 147-7. The vote "offers the prospect of considerable cost savings. I look forward to working with the governor and Senate president on finalizing the reform of our transportation system and continuing our important work."

It will take further analysis of the final law, and possibly years of experience, to determine how much money it might save.

Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former Indianapolis mayor, said merging government agencies can save money, but it depends on how such changes are managed.

"We've seen examples where consolidations have been an excuse for not taking strong steps," Goldsmith said.

House members spent hours yesterday considering nearly 200 amendments. One that passed would require the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to send out notices to drivers when their licenses need renewal, a process that was halted by Patrick a few months ago to save money.

Though the House and Senate bills make several governing changes, they do not fundamentally change the way the state pays for transportation. Tolls, MBTA fares, federal grants, and the gas tax remain the primary sources. House members voted against an amendment that would have put the Legislature in charge of setting tolls, leaving that political liability in the hands of the new authority.

"I'm concerned that with this new authority, the people that I represent could, at the end of the day, be paying higher gas taxes and higher tolls," said Representative Karyn E. Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican who sponsored the failed amendment.

The House bill, unlike the Senate version, forces current MBTA workers to get their health insurance through the state system, which could save tens of millions of dollars a year, according to some estimates.

Under the bill, the T would be overseen by the new authority but would have more autonomy than granted under the Senate version.

Both bills would change the pension rules for newly hired MBTA workers, eliminating the "23 and out" benefit that lets workers retire with 57 percent of their salary after 23 years, regardless of age. The bill would create a minimum requirement that workers have 25 years of experience and be 55 years old in order to collect.

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