The Legislature must not leave Pike tollpayers in the lurch. But Patrick promised more than just more juggling of the Pike books. It's time he delivered his proposal for reform.

The House moved quickly last week on Gov. Deval Patrick's request for authority to refinance some Mass. Turnpike debt to avoid a turn of events in the next few months that could force the Pike to come up with up to $200 million it doesn't have. But that progress came to a screeching halt when Treasurer Tim Cahill and some key senators objected to using the state's credit to back Pike bonds paying for the Big Dig.


Patrick's initiative is welcome because the danger to tollpayers is real. Former Mass. Turnpike chief Matt Amorello negotiated complicated refinancing arrangements on Big Dig bonds in 2001 and 2002 that gambled on interest rates staying low. That hasn't panned out, and the financial difficulties of the firm that insured the bonds increases the likelihood the Pike will have to pay off the bonds soon, at a far higher rate than Pike officials had hoped for.


The Big Dig, with all its benefits and baggage, is a state asset and responsibility for paying for it belongs to the state. Any outcome that again leaves the tollpayers holding the bag for more problems with the Big Dig is unacceptable.


But some of the questions raised by Cahill and other critics deserve answers: Why did this proposal spring up so suddenly, with the session winding to a close? Why wasn't the risk spotted earlier? What is the danger to the state's bond rating, and how can it be minimized?


Most important: Where are the reforms to address the Pike's twin deficits, a shortage of money and a dearth of credibility?


Voters lost confidence in the Pike years ago, when it reneged on its promise to take down the tolls once the construction bonds were paid off. It earned a reputation as a haven for hacks, where public dollars and the public good came second to featherbedding and bureaucratic self-preservation. Then came the Big Dig, the most mismanaged public construction project in memory.


There have been changes in leadership at the Pike. Patrick appointees now control the Turnpike Authority board, chaired by Bernard Cohen, Patrick's secretary of transportation. The Pike's new executive director, Alan LeBovidge, is off to a good start, cutting staff and perks, demonstrating that the Pike cannot afford to do business as usual.


But the Pike has seen plenty of leadership changes over the last 50 years, yet the culture of waste and patronage persists. Deeper reforms are needed, at the Pike, the MBTA and other transportation agencies, including - but not limited to - a revision of the organizational chart. Restoring public confidence requires visible reforms, like reducing police details and overpaid tolltakers.


Patrick has promised reforms. Last October the administration announced it was working on a proposal to merge the agencies into the Massachusetts Transportation Authority - MassTrans, for short. But by January, he was backing off, and six months later no proposal has emerged.


"It's so complicated, and I'm not just talking about the politics," Patrick said when asked about transportation reform on a radio show in January. Sure, but did he think he was hired to do just the easy jobs?


The Legislature must not leave Pike tollpayers in the lurch. But Patrick promised more than just more juggling of the Pike books. It's time he delivered his proposal for reform.


MetroWest Daily News