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Zakim Bridge shines again

Private donations will keep lights on

A view from Charlestown of the Leonard P. Zakim Memorial Bridge. The bridge's lights, which haven't been on since April 9, were turned on at dusk yesterday. A view from Charlestown of the Leonard P. Zakim Memorial Bridge. The bridge's lights, which haven't been on since April 9, were turned on at dusk yesterday. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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The Zakim Bridge's sapphire lights flicked on again last night, casting their familiar glow over the Charles River, as transportation leaders announced a host of changes bent on avoiding a repeat of the massive Easter Day traffic jam on the state turnpike.

At dusk, the beloved lights returned for the first time since April 9, when the cash-strapped Turnpike Authority pulled the plug to save an estimated $5,000 a month. Facing a backlash of criticism for the decision, officials said yesterday that they had received enough private donations to keep the lights aglow for good.

"Right in time for Patriots Day," said Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the state's transportation office.

Many residents were glad to see the lights back on.

"Light it back up," said Sidney Sans, 78, at dusk in Charlestown last night. "I live in the North End, so I use it a lot."

Adrian Denneno, 25, said, "If they paid all that money to build it, they should light it up. It's nice." Denneno said the possible savings by shutting the lights was insignificant, quipping that politicians would probably mis spend the saved money anyway.

Alan LeBovidge, director of the turnpike, is finalizing a longer-term "public-private partnership plan" to pay for the electric lights and is exploring more efficient lighting sources, Durrant said.

Under intense pressure to address the Easter Day debacle, when a shortage of toll takers caused protracted delays, state transportation officials also announced several new measures to reduce congestion. The initiatives sprung from an investigation into the toll plaza delays that Governor Deval Patrick ordered last week amid public outcry over the handling of the backups.

A preliminary report from the state's transportation department blamed the hourslong delays on the turnpike's recent policy change that nearly banned overtime for toll takers, preventing them from calling in enough employees to replace scheduled workers who had called in sick.

In a cost-cutting move, officials sharply reduced overall staffing levels from last Easter and replaced just three of 17 workers who called in sick. As a result, backups stretched up to 7 miles, with many Fast Lane customers unable to escape the long lines at the tollbooths.

Officials said the turnpike will now pay overtime for toll collectors to fill empty shifts on holiday weekends and other times when heavy traffic is expected, even though toll takers earn $55 per hour on holidays. It also pledged staffing levels on holiday weekends that would "reduce congestion and minimize lengthy delays," and said managers will continue to fill in for toll takers when they are sick or on break.

"None of us ever want unnecessary delays, and my team is working to ensure that we have plans in place that will allow us to reduce congestion at toll plazas during high-traffic periods," said LeBovidge, who has been under fire for the backups and his comments that commuters would have to "grin and bear" such delays because of the turnpike's budget woes.

The state report found that toll takers were not holding an orchestrated sickout.

But Senate Richard R. Tisei, a Wakefield Republican and the minority leader, took issue with the report's finding that the restriction on overtime caused the delays. Instead, he blamed the decision to staff fewer workers to begin with, and accused turnpike leaders of endangering public safety to sway public opinion.

"It's one thing to turn the lights off on the Zakim; that's a harmless publicity stunt," he said. "But when you manufacture a three- to four-hour delay, that has public safety implications. That crosses the line."

Tisei said he supported the moves to waive the transponder fee and make them more widely available. The transponders are small windshield devices that allow electronic toll collection rather than paying in cash.

To encourage drivers to obtain Fast Lane transponders, the state plans to waive a 50-cent monthly fee for transponders that was set to take effect in July, making them free, and will ensure they are available at seven more registries. In a new pilot program, they will also be available at five Herb Chambers car dealerships.

The move, which will be debated Wednesday at a meeting of the turnpike board, will cost the agency $6 million a year. Officials said it will reduce congestion at tollbooths by spurring more drivers to acquire transponders.

In another change, State Police will be advised to wave drivers through tollbooths without charge when delays are heavy.

Critics said the decision to schedule fewer toll takers and not to call in reinforcements marked an orchestrated effort by state officials to underscore the scope of the turnpike's fiscal plight so it could drum up support for a proposed gas tax hike and spur drivers to register for automatic payments.

The authority is billion of dollars in debt and has postponed toll hikes several times under pressure from commuters and legislators. Patrick has proposed a gas tax increase of 19 cents designed in part to rescue the authority without further toll hikes. But legislators have balked so far.

Spencer Kimball, director of Stop the Pike Hike, a citizens' group, said the recommendations represent a repudiation of several recent policy changes.

"It's really a vote of no-confidence in the current Turnpike Authority," he said.

The head of the toll collector's union, Robert F. Cullinane, said the new overtime policy was a case of too little, too late.

"They purposely understaffed from the beginning," he said. LeBovidge "deserves to be fired for what he did."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Noah Bierman of the Globe staff and correspondent John Guilfoil contributed to this article.