Editorials: Toll-payers win a pair

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

In the end, the Mass. Turnpike - and its toll-payers - came out with half a bailout and a study group, which may be the best possible outcome.

The worst would have been if the Legislature ended its formal sessions without completing action on the Pike at all. Faced with the possibility that some bad refinancing decisions by Pike management in 2002 could saddle the Pike with unanticipated interest costs of as much as $2.3 million a month, Gov. Deval Patrick last month sought authority to refinance up to $2.4 billion in Pike Big Dig debt, backing it with the state's higher credit rating.

Without the refinancing, Pike drivers could have been hit with massive toll increases. After the House quickly passed the bill, it ran into trouble in the Senate. Leaders inside and outside government decried the "bailout" and demanded reform of the trouble-plagued transportation agency.

As longtime critics of the Turnpike Authority, we understand the sentiment. After promising a merger of agencies that would remedy the problems of the past, most egregiously mismanagement of the Big Dig, Patrick hasn't come through with a plan.

But spite doesn't solve problems, and letting the "swaptions" deal dump millions in interest costs on the Pike wouldn't punish ex-Pike officials like Matt Amorello or Jim Kerasiotes, or hurt contractors like Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. It would only punish toll-payers, who are already suffering enough from Boston's overpriced road project.

After intense negotiations, House and Senate leaders produced a last-minute compromise. The administration was authorized to refinance up to $1 billion in Pike debt with the state's backing, which should be enough to avoid the swaptions debacle. And a task force was established to make recommendations on the future of the Turnpike Authority and report back within 60 days. That group will include key players like the state treasurer, transportation secretary, the state auditor and experts in transportation finance.

The task force will, we hope, get transportation reform off Patrick's back burner. At best, it will generate the political consensus needed to move forward.

The Legislature resolved one other Pike-related issue. House Speaker Sal DiMasi had proposed legislation transferring ownership of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, 25 acres of park created by the Big Dig, from the Pike to a nonprofit conservancy. DiMasi originally called for $15 million in Pike funds to go to the conservancy as well, a provision that was stricken from the bill, thanks largely to objections from the MetroWest delegation.

That makes two potential burdens on Pike toll-payers averted in the legislative session's last week. Considering how many battles toll-payers have lost, those count as victories.

MetroWest Daily News