Remembering a toll opponent

One of the few people who treated the Big Dig as anything other than a blank check died recently. To quote the Cape Cod Times, Christy Mihos, “a grandson of Greek immigrants who was born in Brockton, became famous in the early 2000s as vice chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority when he predicted the Boston transportation project known as the Big Dig would cost taxpayers billions more than originally planned because of corruption and mismanagement.”

In the late 1990s attempts to conceal cost overruns in the Central Artery/Tunnel Project were failing. Political leaders decided to subsidize construction using Massachusetts Turnpike tolls. This was done partly with deceptive accounting; there was doubt about whether a direct subsidy was legal. (Many years later, the Supreme Judicial Court said it was legal.)

The result was, the Turnpike Authority was responsible for the Turnpike where tolls were collected but not spent, and also for new highways where tolls were spent but not collected. Drivers from the west would pay for a free ride for drivers from north and south.

It’s important to understand that the Turnpike Authority was not part of the state DOT. It was run by political appointees and largely existed to provide patronage jobs, but it was not a regular part of state government. It was a quasi-independent agency run by a board of directors.

Political leaders agreed on a schedule for toll increases and told the people who actually ran the Turnpike to make it happen. Mihos and fellow board member Jordan Levy did not do what they were told. They put off a toll increase and looked to other methods to make the budget work.

The governor was furious and fired them. They sued.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that independent agency directors can not be fired over policy differences. The First Circuit Court of Appeals said the governor violated his rights by firing him for disagreeing with her.

The revolution was short-lived. The state paid the governor’s legal costs. Mihos’ term expired. He went back to business and the Turnpike went back to ensuring that tolls would never go away. Now the Turnpike is part of MassDOT where the governor can more easily prevent dissent.

Now his defiance is just a reminder not to let tolls get started, or they may never go away.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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