Reforms of the state transportation bureaucracy in Massachusetts signed into law two years ago yesterday are not yielding nearly the savings that some had predicted.
It turns out that despite the merger of several state agencies into the new Department of Transportation, just a handful of jobs have been eliminated from the state payroll.
That shouldn't surprise anyone who follows the workings of state government. "Reforms" come and go, but there always seem to be seats on the state employment gravy train.
The much-touted 2009 reform combined the Turnpike Authority, the state Highway Department, Registry of Motor Vehicles and Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission into a new Department of Transportation. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and regional transit authorities were made subject to the oversight of the new agency.
At the time the reform measure was passed, the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick projected that the merger would produce savings of $4 billion to $6.5 billion over 20 years. Now, the administration predicts the merger will only save about $2 billion over the next two decades.
The merger was supposed to produce these savings through efficiencies and elimination of duplicate functions. In most people's minds, that means fewer jobs.
But an investigation by Boston University's New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the new Department of Transportation employs almost as many people as the former individual agencies did. Reporter Jon Marcus found that 457 new employees — many of whom officials say were hired to work on specific projects, and not permanently — have been added since the merger. When retirements, resignations and layoffs are taken into account, the combined Transportation Department has trimmed a net total of 31 positions out of a payroll of 4,254.
"It's not so much that the reorganization was a bad idea. It's that it was oversold," David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, an economic-research center at Suffolk University, told Marcus.
Transportation officials defend the employment numbers, arguing that new people were hired to work on the state's $2.9 billion accelerated bridge replacement program, which will end in 2016. That accounts for 313 of the added workers, according to Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan.
Hiring under the federal stimulus program brought in another 72 employees. Mullan insists that, when these programs expire, the workers will be gone.
"If I have a vacancy, and I have a high performer, I'm going to see if I can hire that person. But unless there's a job for them, they're going away," Mullan said.
Don't count on it. Experience shows that public-sector jobs like these almost never go away. There's always the next "crucial" project coming down the pike.
State Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, was chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee at the time and helped shepherd the reform bill through the Legislature.
Baddour said he thinks $2 billion in savings is still "pretty good" and remains optimistic that the figure could be higher.
"Who are we today to say that we're not going to get the $6 billion?" Baddour said. "If we get aggressive, we can still reach it."
That's the point. The Legislature cannot simply pass some package labeled "reform" and then wash its hands of the matter. Representatives and senators have to fight to see that the measures they pass are implemented in a manner that meets taxpayers' expectations. Otherwise, the bloated state bureaucracy just continues on as usual.
It's too easy — and profitable — simply to maintain the status quo. Legislators derive a great deal of their power from those entrenched state workers, who lend their support to those who don't try to shake things up too much.
And so a massive merger of several state transportation agencies results in a net reduction of 31 jobs.
That's not "reform." That's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.