Editorial: Politics and the Pike

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The Mass. Turnpike has always been a political football, and the Beacon Hill players are kicking it around again as the final seconds click off the legislative clock.

This latest game began when the Patrick administration belatedly realized that a 2002 bond refinancing "swaptions" maneuver could blow up in the Pike's face, costing as much as $175 million the Pike doesn't have. The governor proposed a reasonable method of averting the problem by backing Big Dig bonds with the state's credit. After hearing objections from Treasurer Tim Cahill and others, the Senate balked.

Senate Republicans, relegated by their small numbers to playing games instead of serious legislating, proposed Thursday that the Mass. Turnpike Authority be dissolved by July 1, 2009. They backed up their call with the latest in a long run of revelations of waste at the Pike: A Herald report that two Pike "sign-hangers" earned more than $100,000 in pay and overtime last year, while 51 toll-takers brought home more than $70,000.

This page, which has long been considered the champion of the Pike toll-payer, is as opposed to waste at the Pike as anyone else. But let's be clear: The Pike isn't cash-strapped because toll-takers and sign-hangers are making too much money. Those who drive the Pike are putting more than enough cash in the baskets to pay for far better maintenance than the Pike is getting, even for inflated salaries and excessive overtime.

The Pike is in fiscal trouble for one big reason: The Legislature saddled it with the Big Dig.

The management failures that bloated the Big Dig costs had many fathers: Republicans and Democrats, public agencies and private contractors, state and federal overseers who looked the other way. One of their many mistakes was putting a disproportionate share of the construction costs, and all of the maintenance costs, on the Pike and the toll-payers. If the 2002 refinancing deal turns as sour as the administration fears, that mistake could require tolls be doubled or even tripled.

If the larger mistake can be corrected by merging the Turnpike Authority with other state transportation agencies, we're all for it. If the worst-case "swaptions" scenario can be averted through a proposal like the one already approved by the House, let's do it.

The Legislature has less than a week left in which it can do business in formal sessions without suspending its rules. All the players need to sit down and fashion both short-term solutions and long-range reforms. Nobody will win if all they do is playing political football with Pike finances.

The MetroWest Daily News