Baker memo warned of road concerns

Associated Press | 10/26/2010, 7:23 p.m.

As he concluded his tenure as budget chief in Massachusetts, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker wrote a memo labeling Big Dig spending “simply amazing,” warning that it would force “draconian” cuts to other road and bridge projects — and recommending they be taken only after his boss was re-elected in 1998.

The three-page memo appears to legitimize Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s complaints in the current campaign about how Baker handled transportation spending in his old job.

Patrick contends Baker and his fellow Republicans concealed the true cost of the nearly $15 billion Big Dig project during the 16 years they ruled Beacon Hill before Patrick took office in 2007.

More specially, Patrick says the transportation financing plans Baker and his successors used not only pushed higher costs into the future, but starved other road and bridge projects.

Baker has rebuffed the criticism by alternately saying the Big Dig’s cost did not rise during his tenure, and that he was just one of a number of people responsible for transportation spending. He also notes Patrick is using the same financing mechanism — borrowing against future federal funds — for part of his own road and bridge repair program.

Yet, in the 1998 memo, Baker mimics some of Patrick’s own complaints.

“The financing plan for transportation spending between FY 1999 and FY 2003 is starting to seem surreal,” Baker writes in the memo, obtained Sunday by The Associated Press.

The state’s then-administration and finance secretary warns there is at least a $100 million deficit in the road and bridge construction budget during the first year alone, yet it “is more like” $350 million annually.

Baker blames peak construction at the Big Dig, which buried an elevated highway in a series of tunnels beneath downtown Boston, writing, “Its rate of spending is simply amazing.” At the time, it was the most expensive public works project in the country and required a growing state contribution.

He added that instead of preparing for federal highway spending cuts, the state deferred much of its spending on road and bridge projects outside the Big Dig to three years’ worth of future budgets, between 1999 and 2001.

Under a section labeled “Remedies,” Baker writes, “At some point, someone is going to have to take draconian measures to deal with the transportation spending plan.”

Writing Aug. 26, 1998, more than two months before his boss, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci, was up for re-election, Baker lists four remedial steps for the governor to propose “after Nov. 5th” — Election Day in 1998.

They include reducing the state’s non-Big Dig transportation construction program from $400 million to $200 million, as well as making a one-time, $300 million withdrawal from the state’s rainy-day fund.

Throughout the current campaign, Baker has blasted Patrick for tapping the same fund to balance the state budget before the national recession began, saying: “He started spending the rainy day fund before it started raining.”

Patrick and Baker have been running neck-and-neck in recent months. A poll in the Boston Sunday Globe showed the two about even, with Patrick at 43 percent and Baker at 39 percent — just within the poll’s 4.3 percentage point margin of error.