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Transportation agency pursues private partners

The state’s transportation agency took a major step Wednesday toward more aggressively pursuing partnerships with the private sector, holding the first meeting of a commission that could eventually put big-budget transportation projects in the hands of private companies willing to foot the bill.

But some say the establishment of the commission — mandated by the 2009 law that brought disparate transportation agencies under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation — is woefully overdue.

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“It speaks volumes that we’ve been asked to fund tax increases for hundreds of millions of dollars, and this commission had its first meeting almost four years since the law was originally enacted,” said Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester. “It’s incredibly frustrating to hear folks say we’ve wrung all the money out of the system.”

Public-private partnerships have been a hot topic in transportation circles in recent years, with states such as Florida and Virginia handing over the reins of the construction and management of roads, bridges, and trains to corporations willing to pay for major upgrades in exchange for the ability to collect the revenue from sources such as tolls or fares.

Some transportation officials hope that type of fix might work in Massachusetts.

In its inaugural meeting at the transportation building in the Theater District, members of the Massachusetts Public-Private Partnership Infrastructure Oversight Commission said they were hopeful that handing over some of the state’s most pressing construction projects to companies could help cut down on costs.

“We need to come up with a new funding dynamic, if you will,” said John Vitagliano, a former commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “And I think that’s what this commission is all about.”

Some public-private partnerships are already in the works in Massachusetts: Earlier this month, MassDOT approved plans to allow New Balance to build a commuter rail station in Brighton, at no cost to the T, which would serve employees at the company’s headquarters.

Alan G. MacDonald, the chairman of the seven-person commission, said he hopes the board will help ferret out similar opportunities for cost-saving.

“We’re wide open for suggestions,” MacDonald said.

But commission members said they recognized that outsourcing to the private sector won’t be a magic bullet for the state’s beleaguered transportation system.

Some projects in other states, like Denver’s outsourcing of a light-rail construction project to a company that built and performs upkeep on the system, have been hailed as successes.

Other partnerships have been much-maligned, such as the privatization of parking in downtown Chicago, where parking meter fees jumped exorbitantly without city oversight, and jammed meters caused much ire among residents.

“I am a total agnostic about public-private partnerships,” said David Luberoff, one of the board members. “If done well, they have the potential to deliver ... If done badly, they can really cause great harm.”

Richard A. Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, agreed. “It’s not a panacea, it absolutely is not,” he said. But, he continued, “it’s another way of thinking about ... how to finance projects.”

One example Davey put on the table: The expansion of South Station. The rail hub is currently maxed out on capacity for trains, and many transportation officials have argued that the state must increase the number of tracks to better accommodate increasing ridership and any potential service additions.

The state could establish a contract with a private company that would pay the capital costs on construction, Davey said — then recoup some of that money by managing the air rights over the station and receiving some of the revenue that would bring.

In an era of tight finances, crushing debt, and the lack of a desire among legislators to dramatically increase taxes to fund transportation projects, public-private partnerships might be the way to go, some said.

“I am depressed by the idea that it’s not possible these days to appropriate the sufficient funds that one needs to do infrastructure [projects],” said former US Represenatative John W. Olver, who is also serving on the commission. “Someday, maybe we’ll have more public money available. But in the meantime, we’ll do the best we can.”

But for some, like Tarr, the arrival of this commission four years after it was authorized in legislation — and after Governor Deval Patrick went to state legislators appealing for more than $1 billion in new revenue for MassDOT — was disheartening.

In April, during debate in the State House on transportation finance, conservative lawmakers lambasted MassDOT for failing to aggressively pursue opportunities for new revenue or cost-saving that could have prevented the need for increased taxes or fare hikes. They pointed to the fact that public-private partnership committee had not yet been convened.

Wednesday, Davey and MacDonald said MassDOT needed time to properly merge the disparate transportation agencies under one umbrella before it could focus on sussing out public-private partnerships. But Tarr said that argument didn’t hold water.

“Here is one of the central tenets of the 2009 law, and it has not been realized,” Tarr said. “It hasn’t been enough of a priority for the commission to even meet ... and you have to wonder how serious this administration is about saving money.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
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