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MassDOT On Track For November Launch; Labor Issues Remain

This article is more than 9 years old.

A massive restructuring of the state’s transportation agencies is on track to reach a major milestone next month. The new Massachusetts Department of Transportation will officially launch on Nov. 1, according to Jeffrey Mullan, the incoming state transportation secretary. He spoke at an oversight hearing held by the Joint Committee on Transportation on Beacon Hill.

MassDOT, the new mega-agency created through transportation reform legislation passed in June, merges the state highway system, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, most functions of the MBTA and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The Massachusetts Port Authority remains a separate and independent organization.

Incoming Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan spoke Thursday at an oversight hearing held by the Joint Committee on Transportation. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)
Incoming Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan spoke Thursday at an oversight hearing held by the Joint Committee on Transportation. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)

“There are significant challenges when integrating independent organizations that have their own unique histories, cultures and business practices,” Mullan said. “We have not experienced this type of reform in state government for nearly half a century.”

The integration efforts remain largely invisible to Massachusetts drivers and transit riders. E-mail systems have been merged and Web sites redesigned, Mullan said. More complex systems, such as merging differing highway maintenance teams and redesigning snow and ice plans for the upcoming winter, are currently underway.

“We will run transportation like a business,” Mullan said. “It will not be sexy or exciting. It will be more efficient.”

However, union leaders remain profoundly concerned over the future of some 1,200 represented employees, particularly at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

“They are petrified. Absolutely petrified,” said Karen Christie, president of the United Steelworkers Local 5696. The chapter represents mid-level managers at the Turnpike.

“On Nov. 1, my members could get a major pay cut and lose their union,” Christie said. Under the reform legislation, Turnpike employees can accept representation from labor groups already operating within the Massachusetts Highway Department, but they would lose their Steelworkers membership.

Many Turnpike workers also earn more than Massachusetts Highway Department employees. Turnpike foremen make $72,000, Christie said. Similar job titles at MassHighway pay $47,000. In the new MassDOT, the two groups would be required to earn similar wages.

Mullan acknowledged that salary and representation were major sticking points, though not enough to stop the MassDOT launch next month. He said he’d been in numerous meetings with labor groups throughout the transition.

“Let’s be frank. The Turnpike Authority is the most impacted agency," Mullan said. “We have to treat people fairly. We’re not doing enough.”

Several legislators signaled a willingness to step in if an agreement is not reached. Transportation committee co-chair Sen. Steven Baddour said he would be open to making a “technical change” to the reform bill’s language that would protect current Turnpike employees.

Other obstacles remain. MBTA workers and retirees were scheduled to join the state health care plan beginning in July. The plan is less generous than the T’s current health benefit. The change is estimated to save the state $30 million a year, but the MBTA’s unions recently filed suit to block the benefits reduction. The case is pending.

MassDOT also inherits a raft of financial woes from the Turnpike Authority, including $2.2 billion in debt and dismal bond ratings. However, the formation of MassDOT allowed those ratings to be temporarily raised, said Jay Gonzalez, incoming secretary of administration and finance. The lift allowed the authority to avoid paying tens of millions of dollars in termination payments on several so-called swaption agreements.

“This is not going to be a Nov. 1, we flip the switch and everything will be done,” Gonzalez said. “It will take years of work to get where we want to be.”

This program aired on October 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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