Editorial: Patrick's push for a Pike merger

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

By political and fiscal necessity, Gov. Deval Patrick seems to be turning into the reformer we hoped he would be from the beginning. And a budget crisis may provide the muscle his reforms will need to get through a historically reform-resistant Legislature.

Patrick and the Legislature both overspent in the current budget, ignoring signs that an economic downturn would cut deeply into projected revenues. Three months into the fiscal year, the state has already seen a $223 million shortfall in tax collections. Patrick is preparing a list of emergency spending cuts and is calling on other officials to do the same.

In search of savings, Patrick is promising a reform his predecessor tried, but failed, to enact: abolishing the Mass. Turnpike Authority and merging its operations into the state Highway Department. It is an idea that has been much discussed - Patrick himself raised it a year ago, but never followed through - and one that those of us who depend on the Pike should welcome.

The Pike is in a fiscal crisis for large and not-so-large reasons. The biggest is the Legislature's 1997 decision to saddle the Pike with the cost of building the Big Dig. Out of every dollar toll-payers throw into the basket east of Rte. 128, 58 cents go to pay off Big Dig bonds. Big Dig-related financing decisions made by a succession of governors and Pike officials dug the hole deeper.

Patrick's inaction over the last year has also taken a toll. Thursday, one of two bonding agencies dropped the Pike's bond rating to just above junk bond status, in part because neither the merger nor toll increases appeared to be coming. The downgrade will force the Pike to put $9.5 million into an escrow account. If a second rating agency follows suit, it could cost the pike another $37 million.

The potential savings from any highway agency merger have been hotly debated. There are some redundancies that could be eliminated, and Pike employees have higher pay and benefits than MassHighway employees in similar jobs. But the symbolic value of doing away with a much-despised agency may be greater than the monetary savings.

Pike users will be watching closely for the details, especially those that relate to the governance of the merged entity. Who has the authority to raise tolls in the new regime? What restrictions will there be on where toll revenue will be spent? The Mass. Pike must not become a cash cow to fund road projects across the state.

But the advantage to Pike users from any merger is the opportunity to refinance the Big Dig debt. As long as the Big Dig bonds are solely the responsibility of the Turnpike Authority, the toll-payers will be stuck with them. The Big Dig is a statewide asset, built - for better or worse - through the efforts of all the state's elected officials. Paying for it must be a statewide responsibility.

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