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THE NEW MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION opened its doors Sunday. It is widely hailed as one of the largest governmental reorganizations undertaken by the state in the past 50 years.
The transportation super-agency fuses the now-defunct Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. It is now responsible for almost all roads, bridges and tunnels in the state.
However, immediate changes to the state transportation system will remain largely invisible to commuters and transit riders. MassDOT, as the agency is also known, features a new Web site and Twitter feed.
The agency was billed as the centerpiece of the "reform before revenue" strategy to fix the state's ailing transportation infrastructure. Senate President Therese Murray and Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Stephen Baddour said efficiencies produced by the agency would save the state $6.2 billion over the next 20 years.
Jeffrey Mullan downgraded that claim. The new secretary of transportation, who is heading the formation of MassDOT, said the state will not achieve such savings.
"I like to be aspirational. I think that number's a little high," Mullan said. "The numbers that we've got are largely in aligning health and welfare benefits. From my perspective, any savings in necessary, so we need to take care of the pennies because we spend a lot of them."
The largest long-term savings were expected to emerge from a plan to trim MBTA employee benefits. Efforts to move T union members to the state's group health insurance plan have stalled because the T's unions have sued to stop the move.
In addition, Mullan hopes to eliminate wage discrepancies between employees at the former Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Highway Department. Those negotiations are ongoing.
Transportation finance experts now say overall savings are likely to be a fraction of original projections — some $1 billion dollars over the next 20 years — but even those savings are uncertain.
MASSDOT ALSO COMES INTO BEING UNDER A CLOUD OF CONTROVERSY over its governing board. Gov. Deval Patrick announced his appointments to the five-member board Friday. Three of the five appointments served on the disbanded Turnpike and MBTA boards.
Janice Loux, head of the Unite Here! Local 26 union, served 12 years on the MBTA board. Ferdinand Alvaro, a lawyer, also served on the T board. John Jenkins, a Natick insurance executive, was appointed by Patrick to the Turnpike board in October 2008. Jenkins will chair the new MassDOT board.
The state law governing the formation of MassDOT calls for board members with actual transportation finance and planning experience.
The appointments drew enormous criticism from Baddour, who said in a statement that the board could potentially "doom" transportation reform. Mike Widmer, former member of the independent Transportation Finance Commission and head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the appointments were a serious setback for the launch of MassDOT.
"The whole underpinning of the reform is to get an experienced board as part of a new united transportation agency," Widmer said. "Instead, three of the board members have recently served on two agencies that have been very troubled. So this is anything but a fresh start."
Gov. Patrick said in a statement that he is "confident they will get the job done."
Patrick also appointed Andrew Whittle, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Elizabeth Levin, a management consultant focused on transportation.
The MassDOT board consolidates power and decision-making responsibility once held by the MBTA and Turnpike boards. Billions of dollars in construction contracts, thousands of employees and thousand of miles of state roads and railways will be under the MassDOT board's control.
Revenue remains a dominant concern at the new agency. The state continues to face an annual $1 billion funding shortfall simply to maintain existing roads, bridges and tunnels.
Mullan said there will be no toll or T fare increases in the immediate future. However, he did not eliminate the possibility of such hikes in the future. Mullan also said the state needs to stay open to all potential future sources of transportation funding, including increases in the state gas tax.
A major top-to-bottom financial review of the MBTA was due also Nov. 1.
Click "Listen Now" to hear WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti explain the changes to WBUR's Bob Oakes.
This program aired on November 2, 2009.
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