Mass. Pike board questions spending $100K on little-known advisory groups

Lindsey Parietti

Turnpike Authority Board members were surprised to discover that the authority is paying for two $100,000-a-year advisory boards that until Monday had gone unnoticed.  

“Who are these people?” asked board member Michael Angelini after spotting the allocation during a review of the authority’s 2008 budget Monday.

Since 1997 the authority has been reimbursing the two nine-member boards, one for the Western Turnpike and one for the Metropolitan Highway System, up to $50,000 each for staff and research expenses as required by the state Legislature.

During the same meeting, authority staff announced that they could only find $4 million in the turnpike’s bare bones budget for $49 million in new capital project needs for the Metropolitan Highway System, or east of Route 128.

Projects that will go unfunded include Sumner Tunnel repairs, new batteries for Big Dig tunnel ventilation systems and a $1 million Newton sound barrier. Turnpike Chief Engineer Helmut Ernst called the funding gap concerning, but said that it doesn't pose any immediate safety threats.

“It obviously makes no sense for the directors of this board to do this as a public service and to be paying some advisory board $50,000 for expenses when they have no legal responsibility,” Angelini said.

Board members questioned the effectiveness of the advisory groups, which issue their recommendations after the board has already voted on land sale and use, such as the development of Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.    

Steve Hines, the authority’s director of real estate and development, described the relationship between the advisory boards and the five-member Turnpike Authority Board as cordial, but only one authority board member said she had ever interacted with the advisors.

“That’s hard to believe,” said former Newton mayor Thomas Concannon, who is chairman of the MHS advisory board. “The one I’m on is about 10 years old, that’s just interesting to me.”

Concannon said his group serves as an intermediary between neighborhood groups and the Turnpike Authority and that over the past few months it has sent written opinions to authority staff including board chairman Bernard Cohen.

Board members abandoned discussion of advisory boards, a legislative mandate that they are powerless to change, to take up arguments about the authority’s audit committee.

The committee, which was formed to provide additional oversight, has been in limbo without enough members to convene since John Moscardelli resigned last summer.

At previous authority board meetings, Judy Pagliuca and Mary Connaughton, Romney appointees who also serve on the audit committee, have resisted motions to oust Connaughton as chairman of the committee and to restrict the committee’s role.

“You’re killing me folks, absolutely killing me,” said board member Thomas P. Stephens after sitting silently through most of the meeting. “As a board we have to move forward, have to.”

After several tense exchanges Monday that have come to characterize the fractured group, Patrick appointees Cohen, Angelini and Stephens voted three to one, with Pagliuca abstaining, to create a new charter in anticipation of adding themselves to the audit committee at a future meeting.  

Lindsey Parietti can be reached at    

MetroWest Daily News