Final passage of a landmark transportation reform bill, with a bipartisan vote of 130 to 25 in the House today, signals an end to decades of costly balkanization of our transportation infrastructure. I voted in favor — nothing so controversial and complex can be perfect, but it is a very good bill. The bill will improve services and save perhaps $30 million per year initially and more in later years. The bill now moves to Governor Patrick’s desk for signing — the Governor has not yet taken a position on it.
The 175-page bill abolishes the Turnpike and MassHighway and consolidates most of the state’s roads under a single five-person board appointed by the Governor. The Tobin bridge, currently under Massport, and much of the parkway system are moved under the new agency. The MBTA remains a separate legal entity, but the bill gives control of it to the same five-person board that controls the main authority. The only major piece of the state-level transportation infrastructure that remains separate is Massport — federal rules about the use of landing fees create barriers to consolidating Massport.
For one local example of the costs of balkanization, consider the proposed bike path from Belmont to Alewife — state agencies have pushed paper back and forth for years trying to sort out property rights along the path. This kind of problem repeats itself in many places across the state and in different facets of our transportation operations.
Another consequence of balkanization has been that disparate benefits and pay scales have evolved for employees within the isolated authorities that are out of line with those in other state agencies. Organized labor fought hard to preserve these these benefits, making a list minute push, asking members to reject the report of the House-Senate conference committee that had been working for months. Their e-mail telling members that a Yes vote might cost them labor support, sent just before the vote today, forced legislative leaders to delay the vote to poll members. The group that ultimately voted against the bill included those who always vote on the perceived labor side of issues.
The bill will make Turnpike and Tobin Bridge employees into state employees who will need to merge their bargaining units with state employees in the same job classes and renegotiate their compensation levels. It will also move these employees and all MBTA employees and retirees into the state’s standard health insurance plan, and for many of them, increase their contribution levels. For new employees, it will eliminate the controversial “23 and out” rule that has allowed many MBTA employees to retire in their 40s. Finally, it will prohibit the MBTA from paying the costs of Medicare Part B for its over 65 employees.
I would have like to see the bill go a little further and eliminate “23 and out” for employees of short tenure as well as for new employees, but we couldn’t go too much further without running into successful lawsuits — the constitution limits our ability to break pension promises to employees. The constitution is not so strict as to health care — I feel we may have gone a touch too far in eliminating part B payments for retirees. The most elderly among these retirees tend to have very tight budgets.
The bill does not speak directly to revenue, but was negotiated against the backdrop of the dispute about the gas tax. Many of us, including me, were ready to vote to close the billion dollar annual funding gap for transportation infrastructure through a substantial increase in the gas tax. The Governor advocated a relatively modest gas tax increase, which would only address about half of the gap.
For now, it seems that the legislature’s vote to increase the sales tax and dedicate a portion of the proceeds towards gap closing is the end of the story. (We expect to finalize this tax vote tomorrow as part of the budget.) The amount committed should suffice to avoid toll and far increases, at least for this year. The sales tax increase raises about the same as the Governor’s package of gas and sin taxes, but allows more of the revenue to be used to partially counter the effects of the recession on the state’s budget. The tax votes are not pretty from any angle, but I accept the judgment of House leadership that the sales tax was the only way forward that had the necessary votes.
Other highlights of the bill include: