Deval Patrick has campaigned against the "Big Dig culture" for years, so some were surprised in December when the governor tapped a Big Dig insider to be his secretary of transportation. But Patrick figured if anyone has the policy knowledge and political connections to grease the skids for a rescue of the state's troubled transportation system, it's Jim Aloisi. But Aloisi's rescue mission just about skidded off a cliff on Tuesday.
Deval Patrick has campaigned against the "Big Dig culture" for years, so some were surprised in December, when the governor tapped Big Dig insider James Aloisi to be his secretary of transportation.
Aloisi has worked Beacon Hill's revolving door profitably. Chief counsel for the Mass. Pike through much of the Big Dig construction, he left to join a law firm that proceeded to take in more than $4 million consulting on transportation projects.
Despite this baggage, Patrick likes and respects Aloisi's expertise - he actually wrote a book on the Big Dig - and so do a lot of other insiders. They figure if anyone has the policy knowledge and political connections to grease the skids for a rescue of the state's troubled transportation system, it's Jim Aloisi.
But Aloisi's rescue mission just about skidded off a cliff on Tuesday.
The Friday before, Patrick had finally announced his transportation proposal - reforms, reorganization, refinancing and a hike in the gas tax to avoid steep increases in tolls and MBTA fares - in the PowerPoint version.
Interested parties, notably legislators under pressure to approve some kind of transportation plan, wanted details. But Aloisi showed up to chair the Turnpike Authority's board meeting Tuesday with nothing more than a promise to deliver Patrick's bill later that day.
It wasn't the first time Aloisi has been tardy with his homework. The months working up to the release of the Patrick-Aloisi transportation plan have been marked by leaks and trial balloons, feints and promises of details still to come. Meanwhile the Pike Authority, with bills coming due, the threat of a bond rating downgrade and a decision half-made about nearly doubling tolls to pay for the Big Dig, has been waiting for the Legislature to act, and the Legislature has been waiting for Patrick to announce the plan he promised more than a year ago.
Tuesday was the deadline Pike officials had set for giving final approval to the toll increases, but legislators were begging for more time. When Aloisi showed up empty-handed, it just gave them more to huff about. "We vote on legislation, not PowerPoint presentations," said Sen. Steven Baddour, chairman of the Transportation Committee.
The legislators wanted the Pike to postpone the toll vote. The higher bond payments won't come due until July, according to Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, who demanded Aloisi produce proof that the threat of a bond rating downgrade was real.
Aloisi pushed ahead with the toll vote anyway, a two-stage increase designed to maximize pressure on the Legislature, which was approved, 4-1. The tolls at Rte. 128 and Brighton will go up by 25 cents, and the tunnel tolls by $2, on March 29. A bigger hit will come July 1, with the two Pike tolls rising another 50 cents and the tunnel tolls jumping to $7, twice what they are now.
If the Legislature approves Patrick's proposed gas tax before then, the new tolls would be rescinded. My fear is that the Legislature, which has done little in public but twiddle its fingers since last summer, won't come close to approving a bill before the end of March, and will settle on a plan before July that keeps the first-phase toll hikes in place in return for a gas tax increase smaller than the 19 cents Patrick is proposing.
Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, insists there has been real progress behind the scenes. Over a series of meetings, he's seen Patrick's resistance to the gas tax hikes evolve, he told me. As MetroWest's only member on the Transportation Committee, Fernandes has an important role to play.
And there is important work to be done. Aside from avoiding this round of toll hikes, Patrick's bill is mostly silent on a host of other issues toll-payers have a stake in. There's no pledge to take down tolls west of Rte. 128, erect new border tolls or sell service plazas to pay down debt, all of which were options leaked by the administration over the last few months. With the Turnpike Authority eliminated, who'll have the power to raise - or lower - tolls in the future? Will the fiscal wall that supposedly prevents tolls collected west of 128 from going to the Big Dig be eliminated? Will there be provisions preventing tolls collected on the Pike from being spent filling potholes from Pittsfield to Provincetown?
MetroWest legislators are studying Patrick's bill closely, as they should. Among other accomplishments, Aloisi is considered the prime author of the 1997 bill that saddled the Pike and its customers with paying for the Big Dig in the first place. That burden - $2.2 billion in debt - has driven tolls ever higher and the Pike close to bankruptcy.
Aloisi dug his hole even deeper Tuesday by repeatedly snapping at Pike Board member Mary Connaughton, the closest thing beleaguered Pike users have to a hero in this drama. He cut her off when she tried to explain an amendment she said would raise the needed funds while taking less from toll-payers.
What's worse, he booted Connaughton from her position on the board's audit committee. Not only is she the only trained accountant on the board, she is the only member who acts like she works for the people, not the governor who appointed her. Patrick should remind his transportation czar that hiding the books from honest oversight is a hallmark of the Big Dig culture.
Rather than trying to smooth things over as the meeting ended, Aloisi warned Connaughton: "You'd better wake up."
Connaughton responded by comparing Aloisi's high-handed style to another Pike chairman: "You're out-Matt Amorelloing Matt Amorello," she said.
Aloisi's treatment of Connaughton earned him a public rebuke from Senate President Therese Murray, which doesn't bode well for the consensus-building project.
Linsky and Fernandes insist there is still a consensus to be built. While opposition to a gas tax hike is high, so is opposition to toll hikes. If there's something for everyone - toll elimination for western Massachusetts road and bridge repairs for parts of the state that don't rely on the Pike, help for the MBTA, reforms that make real cuts in the outsized pensions and perks enjoyed by union workers - the votes could be there.
The strongest support for Patrick's initiative comes from lawmakers representing drivers in MetroWest and the North Shore who are most threatened by toll increases. Unfortunately, Linsky said after the meeting, "Secretary Aloisi's done a very good job of losing that support."
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.