Mass. Lawmakers Call For Transportation Super-Agency

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Senate leaders have unveiled a package of major reforms for the state's transportation agencies.

The plan — presented yesterday — includes a proposal to consolidate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the MBTA, and the Massachusetts Highway Department into one new mega-authority called the Massachusetts Surface Transportation Authority, or MassTrans.

WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti reports.

Senate leaders called the Massachusetts debt-ridden transportation system "broken", "a black hole", and "virtually crumbling beneath us". But to fix it, reform before revenue was the mantra. Transportation committee co-chair Senator Stephen Baddour said MassTrans, the proposed quasi-public entity, would streamline agencies, reduce redundancies, and simplify accounting.

SEN. STEPHEN BADDOUR: The restructuring and reform initiative has the potential to save the Commonwealth up to $6 billion.

Six billion dollars isn't enough to fill the state's long term twenty billion dollar funding gap. A fact Senate President Therese Murray acknowledged. But she would not throw her support behind proposals to raise tolls or the state gas tax, until, as Murray put it, it is clear how much funding Massachusetts might receive from another revenue source: the federal fiscal stimulus package.

SEN. THERESE MURRAY: Once we understand that, maybe we'll have to go to the public for an increase, maybe we won't. Most likely we will at the end of the day, but we don't know that yet, and we're not willing go there yet until we find out.

MassTrans would also inherit roads and bridges currently operated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, many of which require millions of dollars in repairs.

The Senate's push for a transportation umbrella organization parallels Governor Deval Patrick's 2007 reform plan, also called MassTrans. In a statement, Transportation Secretary James Aloisi praised the Senate's plan saying it was "consistent with Governor Patrick's vision for transportation reform", and that the Governor would soon present his own reform package that would bring "long-term financial stability for the system."
But not soon, and not on its own, according to Mike Widmer.

MIKE WIDMER: The notion that restructuring or moving boxes will save money is always overstated.

Widmer is director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, and a member of the Transportation Finance Commission. That independent panel that put forth 22 additional reforms, also embraced by Senate leaders yesterday. Widmer said while reform before revenue sounds good, the transportation reality is so dire, Massachusetts ultimately requires revenues beyond reforms.

WIDMER: It's clear we need revenues to close the $20 billion gap, and so we're going to need a significant gas tax increase. And I presume when the final legislation reaches the governor's desk it will include a significant increase in the gas tax.

That depends on how the bill fares in the House. The Senate plans to file its version of a transportation fix in February.

This program aired on January 15, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.