House members this week are set to take up a transportation reform bill after the Senate passed the measure last week in a vote of 39 to 1.
The initiative would terminate the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and merge all of the state’s surface transportation entities under a new bonding agency called the Massachusetts Surface Transportation Authority.
The new MSTA would oversee MassPike’s two systems, the MBTA’s public transportation operations, the Massachusetts Highway Department, and the Tobin Bridge, which is currently within the Massachusetts Port Authority.
The new authority would take on MassPike’s and MBTA’s outstanding debt of $2.2 billion and $5.2 billion, respectively, and their revenue streams.
Senate leaders first announced the plan in early February.
Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, who chairs the Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets, said he opposed the plan because creating another bonding authority may not change the fiscal mismanagement of the systems.
Proponents say merging the existing authorities will create an estimated $6.5 billion of savings over 20 years by consolidating duties and departments, among other reforms, according to Senate President Therese Murray.
Critics dispute those anticipated savings. Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the legislation does not incorporate needed changes to MBTA’s health care benefits. Widmer and other members of the Transportation Finance Commission in 2007 singled out MBTA health care benefits for potential savings.
Widmer said there are limited, if any, cost savings in the proposal. “The major cost savings that were identified by the commission were around MBTA’s health benefits and the Senate has totally watered down that area in the legislation,” he said.
Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service have MassPike’s triple-B rated debt on rating watch negative and developing outlook, respectively.
The authority plans to use $13 million of cash reserves to meet operating expenses through June 30 and will need at least $100 million of additional revenue by July 1 from the legislature or it will need to increase tolls.
The MBTA has higher credit ratings than MassPike, in the double-A and triple-A categories, but earlier this month the public transit agency approved a fiscal 2010 budget that relies upon an anticipated $160 million allocation from the legislature.