Patrick's road reforms

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In phasing out the authority over a period of 12 to 18 months, the governor will make the Massachusetts Port Authority responsible for the Big Dig and will eliminate all tolls west of Route 128 in eastern Massachusetts. With the exception of the Big Dig and its troubled tunnels, the highway department would be the sole overseer of all state roads and bridges.

The governor's plan raises as many questions as it answers and will need refinement as it proceeds through Beacon Hill. For example, while the Turnpike Authority was always an odd choice to head the Big Dig, MassPort, whose main responsibility is to run Logan International Airport in Boston, along with the state's seaports, may be no better. Although the Big Dig's terrible financial problems may finally be behind it, Massport reacted with little enthusiasm to the prospect of taking over the longtime boondoggle.

It is also unclear how the Turnpike Authority's $2.2 billion debt, a product of the Big Dig along with needless overhead and bad investments, will be retired. If tolls west of Route 128 are closed — toll booths in West Stockbridge and Sturbridge which serve as the gateways to New York and Connecticut respectively would be the only ones to remain open — revenue to narrow that debt and meet other expenses would be lost. Turnpike Authority Executive Director Alan LeBovidge, who has enacted some needed reforms and cost-cutting measures and supports the dismantling, acknowledges that under Governor Patrick's plan, the highway department would take on more costs with less revenue, even if the presumed layoffs of toll-takers reduces salaries and benefits to be paid by the state.

An increase in the state gasoline tax with the additional revenue directed toward retiring the Turnpike Authority debt and funding overdue highway and bridge repairs when the debt is retired is called for, as it has been for some time. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the will for it exists on Beacon Hill.

Nevertheless, a way must be found to retire that debt at a time when state revenues are drying up because of the nation's considerable economic difficulties. Mr. Patrick is the first chief executive to seek an end to the Turnpike Authority, and while that is laudable, reaching the goal will require some tough decisions by the governor and his legislative colleagues.

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