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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Transit cliff

Even if Congress and the White House resolves the fiscal cliff, Massachusetts residents face another showdown over taxes and services.

New MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott is warning those sardine-like vessels jammed with commuters may become even more crowded unless Deval Patrick and the Legislature spell out by March exactly how to reduce the system's $132 million budget shortfall -- a fiscal reality that takes into account the 23 percent fare hike last year.
"These first 60 days are going to be very, very critical,” Scott said. “The last thing I want to have to do is start off the year scaring people.”
Given the fact ridership has risen nearly 2 percent despite the last fare hike, she's not doing a great job averting fear.

Patrick is poised to proposal some solutions for the state's multi-billion dollar transportation problem that includes crumbling roads and bridges (and highway tunnels). The problem will be getting the Great and General Court engaged in what surely will be a discussion of new taxes.

The focus on the T's troubles are sure to set off a regional battle, with communities outside the transit system's reach balking at paying the freight for the capital city. Ditto for another dime toward anything associated with the city's commuter web, even the decades-old tunnels that have nothing to do with the Big Dig fiasco.

But it's hard to imagine the problems are limited to the Boston area -- if only because the rest of the state got the short end of the transportation stick during Big Dig construction.

Perhaps chastened by his first effort to raise the gasoline tax, Patrick intends to offer a plan, not a blueprint, showing what it would cost to handle transportation problems from Provincetown to Pittsfield.

The specifics will be in the budget that Patrick submits to lawmakers later in January and, as we all know, the governor proposes and the Legislature disposes. And House Speaker Robert DeLeo disposed of Patrick's rejection of adding another penny to the sales tax to pay for transportation.

Of course lawmakers didn't do that either.

House Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus of Mattapoisett isn't offering hope for MBTA commuters, but he's also keeping his cards close for now.
“In no sense should people think the T is out of the woods,” Straus said, underscoring that last June’s fix was a temporary solution.
It's long past time for lawmakers to come up with a comprehensive solution that fixes the T (which, let's not forget, is shackled with Big Dig debt) and the state's crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels.

But as the ongoing Washington melodrama shows, it's easier to kick the can down the road.

Until it falls into a sinkhole.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

No fare

This probably was not what MBTA officials hoped for as they raised fares by 23 percent while also cutting service.

No, I'm not referring to the trash fire that shut down the Red Line for several hours.

Rather it was another reminder of the Big Dig legacy and the impact of that project's vast overruns on all aspects of the state's beleaguered transportation infrastructure.

Technically, the $54 million price tag will be paid by the contractors who messed up in the first place. But does anyone think a $500 million settlement will cover all the ills left behind?

And it certainly doesn't come close to dealing with the debt payments saddled on the T and its riders as a result of the massive overruns that bankrupted the late, unlamented Turnpike Authority.

Nor is it comforting to hear transportation officials explain why the company responsible for this particular fiasco, isn't being asked to step up to the plate. According to state highway administrator Frank DePaola:
“You can’t get damages from a company out of business.’’
At least track fires can be put out. This fiscal fire seems unquenchable.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Look out below -- and above

Motorists may need a helmet to drive through the O'Neill Tunnel but Jeff Mullan could probably do without his Helmut.

It seems Department of Transportation officials have been more interested in covering other portions of their anatomy than in repairing or replacing the fixtures that illuminate the Big Dig tunnel.

Mullan was already on thin ice after his handling -- or should I say mishandling of the faulty fixtures. The secretary was all over the map on what he knew and when he knew it after one came tumbling down in February and the public learned about it a month later.

An appropriate scapegoat was found and we were left to assume that work was moving forward on solving the problem.

You know what they say about assumptions.

But now Helmut Ernst, the engineer with the most direct responsibility for the lights, is airing his and other dirty laundry, even though Mullan clearly chose Ernst's former boss, Frank Tramontozzi as the fall guy.

About the only thing that is clear in this story is there appears to be more finger pointing than fixture-fixing taking place in DOT. And that means bureaucratic heads should roll before motorist heads are harmed.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lights on, nobody home

Officials at the state transportation department are starting to drop faster than the fixtures in the O'Neill Tunnel.

The head of Frank Tramantozzi, the state's acting highway administrator, was the first to roll yesterday, falling on the sword over the fact it took weeks to inform higher-ups -- including Gov. Deval Patrick -- that corrosion was to blame for a light fixture toppling into traffic in early February.

But things continue to shift from bad to worse for Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan, who may be looking to revise and extend his remarks yet again on what he knew and when he knew it.

The focus will be on the smoking email, warning the problem was a "big deal" that finally worked it's way to Mullan's attention on March 1, forwarded by a deputy who had to prompt the secretary four days later on whether he had been briefed on the problem.

After that, it took three more days for Mullan to actually be briefed before he finally alerted Patrick, a month after the fixture fell.

We now have three different accounts from Mullan on what he knew and when. It's become pretty obvious whose head should be next to roll.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Left in the dark

State transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan seems to be channeling Cool Hand Luke in describing the accountability, or lack thereof, in his agency when it comes to explaining why lights fell down in the O"Neill Tunnel.

One week after taking the blame
for leaving Deval Patrick in the dark for a month about corroded light fixtures, Mullan now says he was left out of the loop himself for a month.
“I should have known earlier; no question about it,’’ Mullan said in an interview yesterday. “It was clearly a lapse in internal communication.’’
Ya think?

The old line about the cover-up being worse than the crime springs to mind as Mullan tries to get to the bottom of what did he know, when did he know it and when did he tell Deval. The question is who is covering up -- if anyone -- and why.

But the bottom line is it is hard to conceive of a situation where lower level highway department officials wouldn't think of telling their higher-ups about a problem of this magnitude. You would think and hope that things falling from the ceiling of Big Dig tunnels would register as a Big Deal.

Patrick accepted Mullan's explanation and apparent lapse of personal judgment in telling him about the incident, expressing continued faith in his cabinet secretary. Is that still going to be true after learning Mullan was kept out of the loop for a month himself?

Let's hope some more light is shed on this major bureaucratic foul-up.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Mullan the consequences of his actions

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan is doing his own big dig this morning after keeping a secret about the lights in the O'Neill Tunnel from Deval Patrick and the public. Whether the hole he has put himself in is too deep to emerge from is an open question.

Reasonable people may disagree on the wisdom of Mullan's decision to keep quiet until conducting a safety review of the fixtures. He claims he erred on the side of caution, wanting to avoid a public panic. Hindsight, he now says, proves that was the wrong decision.

What's mind-boggling, however, is his failure to tell is boss who, one hopes, probably would have told him to go public.

The utter lack of judgment in failing to inform Patrick is mind-boggling. Maybe that's because the Big Dig is the third rail of state transportation policy, harming anyone who comes into contact.

But Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee Chair Mark Montigny has a good point about another governor who has some questions to answer about the Big Dig. The New Bedford Democrat wonders why the light problem did not come up in the 2006 "stem-to-stern review" ordered after the ceiling came down on Milena Del Valle:
“Those buzzwords are designed to give the public confidence. In my opinion, based upon what we owe the commuter and the taxpayers . . . we should in fact do a stem-to-stern review."
Only this time, maybe we should do it better than the one ordered by a hard-hatted, safety vested Mitt Romney in one of his rare Massachusetts appearances after tiring of his job and deciding to run for president.

Let's hope this latest fiasco will allow us to put the Big Pig in our collective rear view mirror once and for all.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Blind leading the blind

It's hard to imagine anyone messing up the region's commuter rail system any worse than a company that keeps running locomotives after they break down. But the MBTA's decision to hire a company that mismanaged the Big Dig comes close.

Throwing justified skepticism to the wind, the MBTA Board of Directors opted to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff to assist in the purchase of 20 new commuter rail locomotives to replace engines like the one that stranded Worcester commuters coming and going on Monday.

Exactly what expertise the company has in anything other than collapsing highway tunnels in not readily apparent. But then again, the MBTA has a history of bad decisions.

Let's start with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co., which holds the contract to operate the system. It's boss is James O'Leary, who once ran the entire T system through, um, interesting times during the 1980s. But he's now running the MBCR, home to brilliant decisions like putting an engine that broke down back into service immediately.

The reason, no doubt, is because there is a severe shortage of working engines. And could that have been influenced by the decision of Dan Grabauskas two years ago to delay purchasing 28 locomotives, citing financial problems?

Anyone want to guess how much more the eight fewer engines will set back the still financially-strapped agency?

Upon closer review, Parsons Brickerhoff seems perfectly suited to the task ahead of them. And that's a scary thought indeed.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Didn't you get the memo?

Does a political bombshell explode if the Globe doesn't hear it? We'll certainly find out in the next few hours as the Associated Press story on Charlie Baker's cynical 1998 Big Dig memo moves around the political world.

The AP's Glen Johnson offers up the October Surprise in this race, a three-page memo from the outgoing Administration and Finance Secretary that calls Big Dig spending "simply amazing," foresees "draconian" cuts in other highway and transit spending and suggests the bad news be delayed until after the election in which Paul Cellucci beat Scott Harshbarger.

Under a section labeled "Remedies," Baker writes, "At some point, someone is going to have to take draconian measures to deal with the transportation spending plan."

Writing Aug. 26, 1998, more than two months before his boss, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci, was up for re-election, Baker lists four remedial steps for the governor to propose "after Nov. 5th" -- Election Day in 1998.

Among those remedies is a dip into the state's rainy day fund, a step Baker has blasted Deval Patrick for doing "before it started raining."

But the immediate impact of the story will be hard to gauge -- at least in the hours leading up to tonight's debate. The story appears only in the Globe's online version and its placement in the Herald is hard to tell without a hard copy (though much easier to find than on boston.com)

And Globe columnist Tom Keane certainly missed the memo, writing today in sympathy of the headaches the Big Dig Dig financing mess has caused Baker.

It's a given the newspapers shy away from powerful stories they did not break -- the Herald's failure to deal with the Jeff Perry story the most obvious recent example.

But with a week to go, ignoring a potential momentum-changing story by a highly credible reporter seems to be some pretty awful journalism.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

The fudge factor

The Globe has two of the gubernatorial candidates fudging the facts about Big Dig and MBTA financing today. But while Deval Patrick seems a bit loose with some words, Baker may have a more serious issue -- fudging bond documents.

Patrick appears to have overreached in trying to tie Baker's Big Dig administration to the sprawling MBTA debt problem, with the Globe's Noah Bierman calling out the Patrick camp for not having rock solid evidence to back up the claim.

Instead, Patrick appears to be relying on the commonly held belief that Big Dig costs sucked up all available transportation dollars -- and saddled the MBTA with additional projects to mitigate the massive highway construction.

Where Patrick seems to have stretched is in his contention that Baker is responsible higher bus, subway and commuter rail fares because of his signature on the Big Dig financing plan.

Patrick's overreach is ironic because the Globe nails Baker for a far more serious issue surrounding his signature: the fact the Weld Administration and Finance Secretary signed a 1996 bond prospectus saying the project would cost $7.7 billion when state officials knew that inflation would take it over $11 billion.

Baker has been more honest on the campaign trail -- declaring the project was $11 billion when he got to A&F in 1994 and was $11 billion when he left four years later.

But there are no brownie points for fessing up now when you sign a document under pains and penalties of perjury that shave the truth.

Especially when the most famous cost-waster and truth shaver, former Turnpike Authority boss James Kerasiotes acknowledges he fudged the true costs because he didn't want the inflation factor to become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In 2003, the SEC found Kerasiotes negligent for failing to disclose a $1.4 billion cost overrun in three 1999 bond offerings, issued by the Turnpike Authority, the Commonwealth and the MBTA. In each case, Kerasiotes supplied the Big Dig cost estimates as he did in the 1996 bond offering by the commonwealth and signed by Baker.

Hindsight has shown trusting Kerasiotes was a bad move. But instead of fessing up to the fact the project was mess during the years when he was the state's finance chief, Baker insists on declaring he was just a little cog in the wheel.

Which is a much bigger whopper than Patrick's stretch.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Half-bakered notion

Lost amid the usual back and forth about insurance premiums, taxes and Big Dig tolls is this hidden gem: Charlie Baker says the Legislature will agree to his reform plans without a fight. Huh?

Yes, the veteran of two tours of duty in the Weld administration told the Patriot Ledger he thinks the Great and General Court -- which has stymied municipal finance reform and fought tooth and nail before losing ethics and pension reform -- is going to roll over and agree to his Baker's Dozen reform without a whimper.
In the Legislature, there’s “more appetite for (these reforms) than you might realize,” he said.
And I have a tunnel under the harbor I can sell you. Cheap. OK, maybe not the tolls.

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the way Beacon Hill works knows the Legislature holds the high cards, for better or worse. Whether it's the constitutional provision that the House, not the governor, initiates tax bills, or the sheer overwhelming 20-year reality of strong legislative leaders, the power today rests in the Great and General Court and is highly unlikely to ebb.

The lesson should be particularly clear to Baker, who saw his boss Weld campaign against then Senate President William Bulger, score enough senators to uphold a gubernatorial veto and yet never made any real progress until he decided to work with and not against lawmakers.

The succession of Republican governors with varying degrees of interest in governing only strengthened legislative power. The four-year history of the Patrick administration shows lawmakers are unlikely to give it back anytime soon.

Despite sharing party affiliation, Patrick had to fight tooth and nail for significant accomplishments in pensions, ethics, transportation and education. But that will forever be clouded by a flip-flop by House speakers on casinos and the damage that fight imposed on his leadership credentials.

Baker may indeed get a few more Republicans in both chambers. I even agree it would be a good thing to try and restore some balance.

But to declare lawmakers will wave through his proposals -- many of which they have steadfastly opposed for years -- is mind-numbing either for its cluelessness or its outright deceit.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The 10 percent solution

I really need to understand Charlie Baker's math -- why is he only responsible for 10 percent of Big Dig financing? Why not 7.65 percent. Or 56.23 percent?

As yet another neglected bridge crumbles, Baker, Deval Patrick and Tim Cahill sent fingers flying in a flurry of charges and counter charges that provided enough air to affect global warming. But amidst all the usual rhetoric was this curious comment by Baker about the Big Dig:
“I have taken responsibility for the 10 percent of the financing plan that I worked with the Legislature and the federal government and others to put together,’’ he said. “But the Big Dig was a 25-year project, bipartisan in nature, and there were lots and lots of people who owned a piece of that project, and I’ve taken full responsibility for the part I owned.’’
For a man campaigning on his leadership skills and a pledge to take responsibility for the "mess" he is seeking to inherit, it's a really curious declaration of independence from the mess he left behind.

Not to mention his math is as baffling as the grant anticipation notes and other fiscal gimmicks he helped to craft to push the financial problem -- not to mention the maintenance of roads and bridges now crumbling before our eyes -- off into the future.

And that future is now, part of the very same mess he is trying to pin on Patrick.

So Charlie, what percentage of this problem is your doing?

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The name not spoken

I wonder what Jim Kerasiotes is thinking right about now as the pathetic mug shot of Matt Amorello becomes yet another reminder of the failings of the Big Dig.

The blustering Kerasiotes was at the helm of the project for the bulk of the period when bad decisions were made, leading to the not-on-time, over-budget, poorly constructed project that literally collapsed on Melina Del Valle in 2006, crushing her to death.

Amorello, well cataloged as over his head, was simply the guy who had the misfortune to be holding the keys to the office when the roof came down after more than a decade of bad decisions, many made by Kerasiotes. Amorello was convenient scapegoat for the fourth consecutive Republican governor to preside over the project -- a Republican with much greater ambitions than the Corner Office.

As far as we know, Kerasiotes didn't complain about the Globe's 2006 headline "The real builder of the Big Dig." And while he denied responsibility for the engineering and safety decisions, the Globe notes:
He considered himself the project's chief taskmaster, responsible for demanding on-time and on-budget construction from the project's private management consortium, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. And he defended his tough focus on cost and schedule as the only to way ensure that the project would succeed when many doubted it could ever be built.
And we all know how that turned out.

The fall of Amorello could turn out to be very bad medicine indeed for another Big Dig-era manager who has also tried to distance himself from the role he played in the financing of the project.

The Globe recently documented the facts of Charlie Baker's involvement in creating the financial underpinnings of the never-on-time, never-on-budget project, puncturing the myth he was trying to peddle.
“There were a lot of other people involved in it, all the way through,’’ he said. “And I was looking to build consensus with all those other people who ultimately had to sign off on whatever we were doing."
The words sound vaguely familiar to those of Kerasiotes.
"Those kinds of issues were never brought up to my level," Kerasiotes said. "The only time you ever had technical review was on a matter of making a change: We're going to eliminate a ramp, that sort of thing."
The Bg Dig buck always stopped somewhere else. And apparently that somewhere was Amorello and some dark streets in Haverhill over the weekend.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Fixin' a hole

Apparently Charlie Baker can't handle the truth, even when it is only referred to obliquely.

The years of neglect to Massachusetts' other roads and bridges -- the ones not part of the Big Dig -- have been coming home to roost in a Big Way the last two days as the bottom falls out of I-93 in Medford.

Deval Patrick danced around the obvious in explaining why the project to fix the 50-year-old roadway was on a priority list of accelerated projects:
“We have all these structurally deficient bridges and this extraordinary backlog of deferred maintenance because of the way we financed the Big Dig and how it starved infrastructure all across the Commonwealth. “We’re trying to catch up, and we’re making good progress.’’
But the Baker camp, which has been trying to claim he was at the heart of all important Weld-Cellucci administration decisions has also been trying to pretend the Big Dig fiasco didn't happen during the Welducci years.
“When is Deval Patrick going to take responsibility for anything?’’ said Amy Goodrich, a Baker spokeswoman. “The next thing you know, he’s going to be blaming Charlie Baker for raising taxes eight times during the last four years."
Yep. Patrick and the Legislature have been forced to raise taxes and slash spending to make up for the excesses in spending and tax cutting during the Welducci and Bush eras. When is Charlie Baker going to take responsibility for anything?

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Elephant's memory

Conservatives like to chide the Massachusetts gubernatorial nominee as a RINO -- a Republican in Name Only -- because his positions are not as doctrinaire as they would like.

But I'd like to offer a different take: the party's symbol, the elephant, is supposed to have a steel trap memory. And the nominee certainly doesn't have one -- at least when it comes to his role in creating the financing for the Big Dig.

The Globe dug through documents to produce a story that clearly shows Baker was offering a revisionist history when he insisted he did not play a major role in the machinations that helped finance the project. Faced with the facts, Baker comes clean, sort of:

“There were a lot of other people involved in it, all the way through,’’ he said. “And I was looking to build consensus with all those other people who ultimately had to sign off on whatever we were doing, including the Legislature and the governor and the Turnpike Authority and Massport and all these other folks.’’

Ironically, the answer highlights what is truly one of Baker's solid traits -- consensus builder. But the story also reflects the fact that there were things he could have done to make the mess a tad more palatable had he been willing to play hardball politics.

Baker's bosses -- Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci -- built their political personae as tax-cutters. And the immediate political benefit of lower taxes and tolls at election time clearly drove the debate, according to the documents the Globe excavated.
In 1996, Weld knocked down three turnpike tollbooths during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against John F. Kerry, eliminating a potential source of Big Dig revenue. Weld also oversaw the elimination of some motor vehicle registration fees, another potential source of direct funding.
It was high political drama although in the end it did Weld no good in trying to unseat Kerry. And Big Red quickly lost interest and abdicated to his No.2, who also had other things on his mind:

At the time, Baker could have relied on the money overflowing from state coffers. In June of 1998, Baker was presiding over a $1 billion budget surplus, with state income tax collections rising.

But with acting governor Paul Cellucci campaigning on a pledge to cut more than $1 billion from the state’s revenue stream by slashing the state income tax rate, there was little enthusiasm in the administration for diverting surplus funds to the Big Dig.

To be fair, Baker was a bureaucrat, highly regarded to be sure, not someone with whom the buck stopped. And so it was that the commonwealth squandered billions of dollars that could have mitigated the overruns produced by the out-of-control transportation secretary James Kerasiotis.

But instead of standing up for principle and walking away, Baker soldiered on -- and spent a good part of his current campaign for the Corner Office denying any role in the debacle.

Elephant's memory indeed.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Why can't we do this?

I've seen the future. I only hope to live long enough to see it for real.

A trolley car once owned by the Boston Elevated Railway is one of many that run along a right-of-way along San Francisco's Embarcadero. That's the waterfront roadway created after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake made the shaky old highway a safety hazard that needed to be torn down.

The palm tree-lined roadway runs from a renovated Ferry Building along the port to Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf. The trolleys actually also head all the way out to the Castro District, making them more than just another tourist lure.

Why am I babbling like this? Because the Embarcadero reminds me an awful lot about the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway -- a strip of city reclaimed from the clutches of a hulking overhead highway.

One thing that is clearly different. San Francisco was able to take advantage of its opportunities. The highway came down in 1991, redevelopment began almost immediately. No massive delays over turf wars.

While the Kennedy Greenway is a major improvement over the no-man's land that existed before the Central Artery came down, it remains very much a work in progress. The ambitions may be greater -- museums are harder to do than trolley lines -- but I can't help but get a sense we should be further along than we are. But then again, this is Boston, where politics and feuding is a way of life.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hidden taxes

We're starting to get an idea of what a "free lunch" looks like.

Let's face it, Americans are tax-averse. And the heart of the "conservative revolution" that began with Ronald Reagan and is wheezing along on fumes today is the concept that taxes are evil things that inhibit growth.

Heck, cutting taxes to raise government revenue is the heart of supply side economics that is a cornerstone of the Reagan Revolution. The philosophy's mantra is you can have the program and services you want -- and you don't have to pay for them.

It's a philosophy that rang up huge deficits in the 1980s and again in the first years of the new millennium. George Bush has brought it to the extreme: the way America can pay for its war against terrorism is to shop more.

The price for that tax phobia is clear: billions of dollars in red ink in Washington -- and in Boston.

The Globe reports the price tag for the Big Dig isn't really the outrageous $15 billion we thought it was. No, it's $22 billion when you factor in the cost of borrowing to pay for it. Oh yeah, and to pay for the salaries of the painters and secretaries who work in the transportation agencies that are sucking fumes to survive the drain caused by the Big Pig.

And we've learned a dirty little secret too:
Contrary to the popular belief that this was a project heavily subsidized by the federal government, 73 percent of construction costs were paid by Massachusetts drivers and taxpayers. To meet that obligation, the state's annual payments will be nearly as much over the next several years, $600 million or more, as they were in the heaviest construction period.
Let's be blunt: this fiasco is the result of 16 years of Republican control over the governor's office and the transportation agencies that thought the bullying of James Kerasiotes was somehow equal to competence as he ran up costs while spending like a drunken Republican. It was aided and abetted by installing political hacks like Matthew Amorello to run the system.

Democrats are not without dirty hands. They stood by as the cost of "mitigation" soared. They were directly involved in the creating the latest fiasco by agreeing to a bailout plan in 1996 that shifted the burden to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority with the goal of making toll payers coming from the west bear the burden of a north-south highway system.

And of course, I would be remiss if I didn't note that they also gave the MBTA a penny of the sales tax then abandoned it to deal with its crushing debt load only by using the farebox.

And they have dirty hands today -- when they quietly sign off on a rescue plan in April, then stand in front of a camera to criticize that plan today. Or fudge about the need for taxes to pay for our crumbling bridges and public transit system.

So we find ourselves looking over a steep cliff, one transportation agency looking at a massive bailout to avoid fiscal ruin, the other unable to consistently deliver basic services.

And with a political structure that still avoids talking about taxes to fix it.

I know I don't like the idea of paying higher gasoline taxes when the Bush economy-induced price per gallon is more than $4. And I certainly don't want to pay more for the bad service and bad attitude that is the MBTA.

But we've been moving those shells around way too long and it's time to pick one.

The reality of course, is things will not get better soon. In fact, it's likely to get worse. The Legislature's is heading out the door in a couple of weeks and won't be around to take decisive action. (OK, maybe that's not such a bad thing!)

The business community is in a snit because they've been asked to pay their fair share of taxes.

And the rest of us, who pay sales and property taxes, subway, bus and train fares and highway and bridge tolls are feeling the pinch of a plummeting stock market eating away our retirement nest egg, rising prices and stagnant wages (when we can keep our jobs).

For many of us, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, a way to lash out and reaffirm the Golden Rule of the Reagan and Bush Revolution: There is a Free Lunch. That light is repealing the Massachusetts income tax.

You think things are grim now? Why in heck does Tim Cahill even want to be governor?

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mr. Grumpy wonders

Here, there and everywhere on this Memorial Day Weekend...

  • How can we miss you when you won't go away Myth? Seriously, have you ever seen a politician who can stand for so much -- and so little?
  • Funny how the best intentions seem to fade at the slightest hint of political push back. Oh well, I guess we'll have to do without teachers instead.
  • But do you think the change in travel might have something to do with not wanting to spend time with you CHB?

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

For whom the road tolls

It's no surprise that Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen's proposal to count car volume on the Zakim Bridge and has earned the tsk-tsks of legislators from the north of Boston. Or the cold shoulder from his boss.

It means the time may soon be coming when they pay their "fare" share for the $15 billion in highway improvements they use daily for their commutes into Boston.

And while Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Steve Panagiotakis of Lowell and House Transportation Committee Chair Steve Baddour of Methuen are correct that this is a tough time to be raising commuter costs -- I have one response: Times are tough all over.

A Toll Equity Working Group put together by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has developed a remarkably detailed report, listing 37 issues surrounding turnpike and tunnel tolls. And to no one's surprise, the majority deal with equity issues.

Simply put, commuters from Metrowest, who use the turnpike or its extension, pay the lion's share of the cost of the Big Dig -- even if they don't travel on the new 1-93, use the O'Neill Tunnel or Zakim Bridge.

Commuters from Lowell or Methuen -- and Duxbury and Milton -- are being subsidized by those from Framingham and Natick. And there's only one way to describe that: wrong.

But that's the sad fact of life since the Legislature took the easy way out in the way way out, created the Massachusetts Highway System and dumped all escalating Big Dig costs on western commuters -- except those beyond Exit 6.

And let's not forget Bill Weld's grandstanding move to level the Newton toll booth -- a stunt that probably benefited him more than the commuters who did not use that entry point.

I have no dog in this hunt. I walk, or take the other form of transportation that has been hit with regular cost increases -- the MBTA.

Everyone is being hit with the exorbitant cost of oil and gasoline -- even T riders. But except for Big Dig users, they don't have the latest in technology (Green Line Breda cars, puhleeze!)

And in case no one noticed, the state's roads and bridges are in a mess -- in some measure because of all the money that was poured into the Big Dig. It's going to take BILLIONS to fix those bridges before they crumble.

Cohen and the Turnpike Authority are simply doing something that was never done during the years the state's highway system was being directed by a series of hacks named Kerasiotis and Amorello. It's called contingency planning.

And it's a welcome change in the way of doing business.

So by all means, go look for efficiencies and savings. Eliminate the payroll patriots who have larded the Turnpike Authority's books during 16 years of GOP rule.

But don't make a decision based on the unhappiness of people who will see an end to their gravy train. Who knows, maybe they can even try commuter rail to keep their costs down.

Mike Dukakis took the Green Line. Mitt Romney didn't even know the cost of subway fare. Maybe Deval Patrick should park the Cadillac and set an example by getting a Charlie Card?

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Why a duct?

Glad to see the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has found another way to waste taxpayers' money -- and that they are inefficient when it comes to shaking down contractors.

But don't you find it a tad ironic to hear Big Dig spokesman Mac Daniel say "This was bad planning on the part of the Big Dig's designers and past administrations, and another example of the lack of oversight at the project."

Sounds like it would have been a good story for Noah Bierman's predecessor on the Big Dig beat to chase. You know, Mac Daniel?

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Zakim Bridge is falling down...

Well not exactly. But the latest report about potentially shoddy construction -- and definitely shoddy management and oversight -- of the Big Dig is enough to make you want to close your windows, lock your doors and curl up in a corner.

First, it's important to note there is a disagreement here between state and federal inspectors over the potential hazards, if any.

The Patrick administration's transportation boss, who inherited this mess from 16 years of Republican "management" says they are well aware of the problem and don't believe it poses the potential risks the feds say it does.

And it is worth noting the federal analysis comes from the Army Corps of Engineers -- which has not exactly acquitted itself with glory in dealing with the problems of the New Orleans levee system before and after Katrina.

Before we panic that the designated symbol of the Big Dig is more symbolic than we ever intended, it is worth noting this potential problem was caught BEFORE anything happened (as opposed to the ceiling tile collapse.)

What is really at issue here is the deplorable condition of our infrastructure -- the roads, bridges and tunnels we use to zip around from Point A to Point B. This is not a new problem -- the failure to waterproof the Storrow Drive Tunnel alongside the Charles River shows that.

(We won't even get into the hare-brained notion that the answer to fixing that involves cutting down 23 trees and running cars through a park).

Whether it was the inability of the New Orleans levees to stand up to what they were supposed to protect New Orleanians from, or the failure of the I-35W bridge period, or the $17 billion infrastructure repair bill the Commonwealth faces, there is a common theme.

And that is Americans like things shiny and new -- but don't want to pay to keep them that way. George Bush's dismissal of higher gasoline taxes to pay for infrastructure reflects the public mood (for a rare change). The fact that this is a wrong mood is irrelevant, sadly.

The United States continues to spend billions, if not trillions, of dollars to fix mistakes -- whether those are in Louisiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts or Iraq. In fact, there is a great willingness to spend to rebuild Baghdad than New Orleans.

The longer we close our eyes to our crumbling transportation system, the more likely it is that tragedies like the flooding of New Orleans, the Big Dig ceiling collapse and the I-35W nightmare will continue.

And as long as we fail to adequately manage new projects that we build, we are setting ourselves up for future tragedies.

But I suppose we could all take the MBTA to work. Oh yeah, I forgot.

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