Governor orders legislation to dismantle the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority

October 2, 2008

Governor Duval Patrick says he has directed his secretary of transport and turnpike chairman Bernard Cohen to "prepare legislation to dismantle the Turnpike Authority, merge the remaining transportation agencies, and restructure the Big Dig debt." (direct quotes from press release 10-02) The announcement is part of a series of moves designed to cut spending in response to lower projections of tax revenues. It is mentioned under the heading "Reforms and Restructuring."

It is unclear which agencies the Turnpike will be merged with or whether this will create any economies. Any change would require the support of legislators.

Soon after he was appointed early 2007 transport secretary Cohen talked about merging the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) with other agencies, but nothing has come of that until now.

Big obstacle to any dismantling would be the takeover of $2 billion+ of Turnpike debt. The Massachusetts Turnpike has the worst financial structure of any toll agency in the US - because debt of the Big Dig project was dumped onto the Authority by the state legislature without the power to raise any revenues from the facility. There are no tolls on the major north-south portion (I-93).

The Governor wants the Big Dig debt "restructured" but it is unclear who would assume the servicing of that debt.

Also this is hardly an auspicious time for a big debt restructuring.

Three options

Organizationally, one possibility would be to merge the whole of the Turnpike into the state highways department called Mass Highways and have the turnpike facilities operated as toll facilities within the state department.

Virginia, New Hampshire, and Washington state all have toll facilities within their department of transportation. Texas has a state turnpike division but it generally develops toll projects and hands them off to regional authorities. Florida has the Turnpike Enterprise within the state DOT.  In Houston tollroads are run as part of county government.

Divide metro from west

A second approach would be to take the metropolitan Boston facilities - the three harbor tunnels and the Turnpike inside the MA128/I-95 beltway - and attach them to a larger Boston are authority like the transit MBTA, while attaching the Turnpike West (west of MA128) to Mass Highways. For financial purposes the MTA is already divided this way, so what would remain would be to divide staff.

New York's transit agency Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs nine city toll bridges and two toll tunnels as a sideline to its buses and trains, so that would be a model for the MBTA taking the metro portion of the turnpike.


A third option is putting the Turnpike and its facilities out to an investor toll concession via a longterm lease.

Before privatization the Indiana Toll Road was run as a district of the state DOT. Similarly the Chicago Skyway was operated as a department of the City government of Chicago.

Separate toll authorities are more difficult to privatize than toll facilities operated within the state or as sidelines to other operations - as shown recently in Pennsylvania where the independent Turnpike Commission has demonstrated the political power to defeat legislation sponsored and campaigned for by the Governor of the state.

So dismantlement of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority could be a step toward privatization by way of a toll concession, especially since the upfront fee could solve the big debt restructuring obstacle. But this is jumping way ahead of events.

Incidentally, no one has ever demonstrated any economies from operating tollroads within state departments or as part of larger agencies. On the contrary the diseconomies of large scale from more complex management structures and more highly layered decisionmaking probably outweigh any economies of shared services.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has to be rated one of the state's least loved agencies so abolition of the Turnpike Authority is likely to be quite popular. It has a long history of generating bad press.

BACKGROUND: The western Turnpike consists of 198km (123 miles) of 2+2 lanes expressway from the New York state line to where I-84 joins, and 72km (45 miles) of 3+3 lanes from there east to the outskirts of Boston at MA128/I-95.

The Metropolitan Highway System portion consists of 18.2km (11.3 miles) of 3+3 lanes of the Turnpike between MA128/I-95 and downtown Boston plus the Sumner and Callahan tunnels of two lanes each, one eastbound, one tunnel westbound, under Boston harbor to the airport area, one of which is tolled, plus the Big Dig (formally Central Artery/Tunnel). The only tolled portion of the CA/T is the 6 lane Williams Tunnel which takes I-90 under the harbor to the airport. (CORRECTION 2008-10-06)

The bulk of the $14.6b Big Dig including 12.6km (7.8 miles) of largely tunneled roadway and the fancy cable stayed 10 lane Zakim Bridge is a deadweight loss to the toll authority which carries debt service plus operating costs.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in FY2006 the last year for which it has reported did 192m toll transactions (526k/day) and collected $257m in tolls. This was split:

- Metro 87m transactions (238k/day) $142m

- West Pike 105m transactions (288k/day) $115m


see fiscal plan

TOLLROADSnews 2008-10-02 CORRECTION 2008-10-06 (Thanks to a reader)

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