By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON -- House lawmakers raised the bottom-line on a five-year transportation borrowing plan from $12.4 billion to more than $12.7 billion, quietly packing the bill Wednesday night with sidewalk, bike path and road projects for lawmakers to take home to their districts in an election year.
After spending the day adding and subtracting projects from the bill without much public debate, lawmakers adopted a large "consolidated" amendment late Wednesday and then unanimously approved the legislation.
There were 262 amendments filed to the bill, which includes $2.2 billion for the South Coast Rail project, $1.3 billion for the Green Line Extension, scores of local projects, and renames South Station in Boston as the "Governor Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station."
Last year, lawmakers raised gas and tobacco taxes to help pay for transportation system investments after a lengthy, contentious public debate between the branches and the Patrick administration. On Wednesday, the House settled for a much quieter discussion about what to include in the five-year borrowing bill.
Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Williams Straus (D-Mattapoisett) told the News Service Thursday he asked members to scale back requests, prioritize projects, or wait until initial design for a project was complete before requesting construction funds. At the start of the day, project requests from House members totaled around $700 million. The spending authorizations added to the bill totaled more than $300 million, according to Straus.
The big amendment, sponsored by House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, ran seven single-spaced pages. It includes more than 100 spending directives for projects ranging from bicycle paths and rail trails to multi-million dollar bridge and parking garage projects. Hundreds of projects around the state were approved, including $5.2 million for reconstruction of Atlantic Avenue from Nantasket Avenue in Hull to the Cohasset town line; $985,000 for pedestrian-oriented street layouts, bicycle pathways, lighting and sidewalk improvements on Main Street in Wakefield; $1.5 million for a rail trail project in Newburyport; $7.5 million for construction of a parking garage in Medford Square; $4.1 million for improvements to the Route 27 and Route 9 intersection in Natick; $1 million to reconstruct Route 31 in Spencer; and $75,000 for the initial design and permit scoping for a commuter rail station in Wareham and for a Buzzards Bay train station ADA compliance study in Bourne.
Straus said House leadership worked their way through dozens of amendments and fed information to House Ways and Means Committee staff to work out language as part of one big package.
"The members understood it was all going to come back in one document. It was a little bit of a different process, but it did seem to work in the end," he said.
The bill includes $300 million in Chapter 90 funding for cities and towns for local road and bridge projects in fiscal year 2015. This is the earliest the House has approved road funding for municipalities, Straus said.
Despite the Legislature approving $300 million for local road projects in the current fiscal year, Gov. Deval Patrick held back some of the money, authorizing only $200 million. Straus said lawmakers hope the governor will fully implement the increased funding next year. "That really is important," he said.
Lawmakers hope to force the hand of state transportation officials and the next governor's administration to complete projects included in the bond bill. The bill uses the word "shall" in directing MassDOT to move on projects. Straus said lawmakers were acknowledging the fact that in 11 months there will be a new governor.
"I think there was a sense that if members were promoting projects, anything they could do to make their project more of a certainty with the next administration they should try to do that," Straus said.
The idea to rename South Station in honor of Dukakis originated largely from former Gov. William Weld, according to Straus. Weld communicated the idea to lawmakers, Straus said. Lawmakers agreed it was an appropriate way to recognize Dukakis given "his passionate advocacy on rail transportation."
Straus said he is unsure if Dukakis is aware South Station could bear his name.
One of the few issues that generated any floor discussion while lawmakers worked on the bill was a proposal by Republican Rep. Shaunna O'Connell to require MBTA Pension Fund managers to provide outside auditors with management discussion and analysis notes. O'Connell (R-Taunton) said auditors have been asking for years for analysis notes and discussions so they have more complete information to conduct financial audits. Pension fund managers have omitted vital information, she said.
The MBTA Pension Fund recently lost a $25 million investment placed with Fletcher Asset Management, which is now bankrupt and reportedly under investigation by the FBI and federal securities regulators. O'Connell contends if analysis notes had been provided to auditors, the $25 million loss may have been discovered earlier or avoided.
"The pension fund should not be allowed to make their own rules," she said on the House floor.
Straus opposed the idea because he said it was unclear what would be required, and what constitutes analysis notes and management discussion.
"Management discussion is not a document," he said. "The amendment requires, quite frankly, I'm not sure what." O'Connell responded that management discussion and analysis notes are terms used by outside auditors. The amendment was rejected 29 to 125.