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Gov. Patrick Signs Transportation Reform Bill

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority out of existence Friday.

Patrick’s approval of a major transportation restructuring bill creates the new Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and now shifts attention to ongoing transportation funding gaps across the state.

The governor signed the bill at his Western Massachusetts office in Springfield.

“The meaningful, long-lasting reforms we will make to our state’s transportation system will rebuild public trust and put an end to the old ways of doing business,” Patrick said in a statement. “Today, we are inaugurating a new era of streamlined and efficient delivery of transportation services to the residents of Massachusetts.”

The Transportation Finance Commission, an independent panel appointed by the legislature, two years ago identified a $20 billion funding shortfall in the state’s 20-year infrastructure maintenance budget.

Patrick had withheld support for the transportation bill until lawmakers backed off a provision immediately shifting highway department employee payroll off the capital budget, replacing it with a three-year postponement. Patrick aides said the up-front cost would be $155 million, funds the state does not have with revenue streams running dry.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, who also sat on the Transportation Finance Commission, said moving payroll off the capital plan right away “wasn’t realistic.”

“Obviously, we don’t have the money now to put them on the operating budget,” said Widmer. “If we’re running budget surpluses it’s fine, but obviously we’re not.”

Patrick had proposed a 19-cent per gallon increase in the state gas tax to fund transportation overall. The proposal received little support in the legislature. Lawmakers opted instead to add a provision to next year’s state budget that would increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.

The governor must finish his review of the budget by Monday.

The sales tax increase is estimated to generate an additional $275 million for transportation. Legislative leaders have indicated they would dedicate $100 million to stave off an impending July 1 toll hike on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The Turnpike board of directors meets on Monday, its first gathering as a newly obsolete agency. A vote to rescind the July 1 toll hike is expected to be on the agenda.

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