Lawmakers last week conducted a second public hearing on Massachusetts’ transportation financing woes and Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to consolidate existing authorities.
Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen testified before the Joint Committee on Transportation on Tuesday to reiterate the fiscal challenges at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Patrick will file legislation in January that would fold its western portion into the Department of Highways and incorporate the Metropolitan Highway System, which runs throughout the greater Boston area and includes the Big Dig, into the Massachusetts Port Authority. MassPike would then dissolve within two years under the plan.
The proposal includes the state taking over $162 million of debt connected to MassPike’s western roadway. It has not been decided which entity would take responsibility for $2.2 billion of MHS debt sold by MassPike and currently backed by toll revenue, although the Port Authority would oversee the MHS.
“Restructuring the Big Dig debt will involve spreading the burden more equitably through a combination of revenue sources that may include tolls, MassPort revenues, commonwealth funding, and savings from eliminating” MassPike, Cohen told the committee. “Let me underscore this point. All of these funding sources will be needed because of how deep in the hole the turnpike is financially, and what it will take to catch up.”
Co-chairs Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Haverhill, and Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Hampden, have spoken out against proposed MassPike toll increases that could go into effect in February or March and Democratic House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s proposal to increase the state’s 23.5-cent gas tax.
MassPike says it needs the $100 million that it anticipates generating from additional tolls to help maintain debt service coverage of 1.28 times in the current fiscal year and roughly 1.6 times coverage in future years, along with needed maintenance upgrades on the system.
Lawmakers and motorists question raising tolls when the administration plans to dismantle the authority within two years, but Cohen stressed the need for immediate additional funding.
“There is also no way around an increase in tolls in the short run to meet the commitments made by prior administrations,” he said. “That is an unfortunate fact. But the time has come to stop relying entirely on tolls alone to pay Big Dig debt.”