Part 7: The Turnpike Revolt
About The Episode
By the year 2000, the Big Dig has passed through many hands, but in its final years a power struggle spills into public view – over who will determine the project’s fate, and who will take responsibility for its mistakes.
NARR: We’re going to pick up right where we left off: the fall of Jim Kerasiotes. What you have to understand is that Kerasiotes ruled the Big Dig like no other single person ever could.
Jim Kerasiotes: Listen, did I have autocratic tendencies? Um, yeah.
NARR: And he did it by controlling a very powerful board
Jim Kerasiotes: Did I want a board that was in lockstep? Yeah.
NARR: The board of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Ian Coss: And at that point, you're not really looking for collaborators, you're looking for supporters…
Jim Kerasiotes: No, I, and, and, and, and you know, it's not, it never was a collaborative body. Basically what you wanted was, um, two votes. Why in the world would you want anything other than that?
ARCHIVAL: Good evening it’s day one of the new management era at the Big Dig…
NARR: But with Kerasiotes now leaving the picture, it’s time to consider those other two votes, the other two people on this three-person board: Jordan Levy and Christy Mihos.
Levy and Mihos were the Big Dig’s ultimate odd couple. They came from different political parties, different parts of the state, very different backgrounds. But they found a common, if unlikely, cause: taking control of the Big Dig.
ARCHIVAL: Born and bred and Worcester to poor Jewish parents...
NARR: Jordan Levy came up in the city politics of Worcester: a rough around the edges, industrial city out in the middle of the state.
ARCHIVAL: According to the best of my abilities and understanding…
NARR: You can picture Levy kind of like the character Toby Zeigler on the West Wing: bearded, balding, rarely smiling.
But in many ways, politics was just a step on the way to his true calling: talk radio.
ARCHIVAL: Celebrating 20 years of the Jordan Levee show. This is W T A G 580 worcester.
NARR: Since the 1990s, Levy has been holding down a regular slot on WTAG 580 AM -- where he is currently scheduled after Glenn Beck, before Sean Hannity, if that gives you a sense for the station's character.
ARCHIVAL: Right my friends. And we are back with you and we do change the world every single day word by word. And with your help, we'll continue to do so...
NARR: So that’s Jordan Levy.
NARR: Now, whereas Levy seemed to wear a constant scowl, Christy Mihos appears to have been always smiling, always upbeat -- with thick, expressive eyebrows and a healthy mane of dark hair.
He made a name for himself as the owner of Christy's Markets, a chain of some 150 convenience stores spread across several states. But then, one April night in 1997, a gunman shot and killed the night manager of one of his stores. Suddenly, the family business lost all its joy. He agreed to sell every store that bore his name to 7-Eleven, making Christy Mihos a very wealthy man.
Mihos had previously dabbled in politics, but in 1998, just as he was casting about for a new direction in life, an unexpected call came. A call from Jim Kerasiotes.
NARR: Neither Jordan Levy nor Christy Mihos had a background in construction or engineering, or transportation, which is probably why Kerasiotes welcomed them into the fold of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Jim Kerasiotes: Listen, Jordan Levy you could buy him for a ham sandwich.
NARR: They were both people Kerasitoes felt he could control.
Jim Kerasiotes: Um, you give him a badge, you know, that says turnpike commissioner, and, and you know, he, he'll be your best friend. Christie, um, you know, Christie knew that, his appointment was my doing and that if not for me, he wouldn't have been there. So he was a loyal vote and um, was under control.
NARR: Christy Mihos wrote a book about his experience on the Turnpike Board. In it, he describes how he and Levy were given offices with no windows, an empty filing cabinet, and one chair between them. On the day of their first board meeting together, the pair were shown into the conference room so they could await the arrival of Kerasiotes, who entered with a full entourage in tow, called the meeting to order, and within fifteen minutes, gaveled it to a close and strode back out. See you in two weeks.
Jim Kerasiotes: And they got paid $26,000 a year to show twice a month, you know, three times a month, whatever, like manna from heaven.
NARR: At least that's how it went for the first year.
NARR: But then...
ARCHIVAL: Jim Kerasiotes has dug quite a hole for himself. Thanks to the big digs, newly announced, $1.4 billion cost overrun
NARR: The cost increase, the criticism, the investigations, and suddenly, Kerasiotes was gone. Out of government, out of the Turnpike Authority, as if Dad just never came home one day and left the kids to run the house.
Ian Coss: Were you prepared for what Mihos and Levy did in the wake of your resignation? Did you see it coming?
Jim Kerasiotes: No, I did not
NARR: From GBH News this is the Big Dig: a study in American infrastructure. I'm Ian Coss.
The Big Dig experienced two great shufflings of the leadership deck. The first was in 1990, when Salvucci stepped down. The second was in 2000, when Kerasiotes stepped down. But this time, there was no heir apparent to take up the mantle and lead the project forward. Instead, there was chaos.
This episode is about a power struggle that played out at the highest level of state politics, over who had ultimate authority over the Big Dig. That might sound like a simple question. Isn't it the governor? Or the secretary of transportation? Or Bechtel-Parsons? Federal Highway? The DPW? Any one of those folks we've talked about so far? The answer is no. True power over the Big Dig laid in a shadowy corner of state government that was only barely part of the government at all.
This is Part 7: The Turnpike Revolt.
Pre-RollNARR: I think even as a kid, I could tell that the Massachusetts Turnpike was a little different than all the other roads in my life. It had its own special logo: the tall black Pilgrim hat with a buckle. And as you passed under that sign you took a ticket. It had a grid of numbers on it, and my job would be to study the grid, find the exit where we got on, the exit where we were getting off, and then trace the lines to where they met, revealing...our toll. The small tribute we had to pay, for the privilege of driving this road.
What I certainly never stopped to ask was: why is this road different? Why is this the one road in my life with Pilgrim hats and paper tickets and little blue toll booths?
ARCHIVAL: It's time for the Longines Chronoscope, a television journal of the important issues of the hour.
NARR: The answer lies in the long shadow of a man named Robert Moses.
ARCHIVAL: Our distinguished guest for this evening is Mr. Robert Moses, the nation's foremost city planner.
NARR: For more than forty years, Moses transformed the landscape of New York City: bridges, parks, housing, and of course: highways.
ARCHIVAL: And how is that financed? Is that, that financed by the issuance of bonds, which however...
NARR: And the key to the Moses legacy -- to his productivity, his longevity, his seeming invincibility -- was the fact that he did not work for any politician, and did not depend on tax dollars. Instead, he paid for his biggest projects by selling bonds, basically getting private investors to fund the construction…if he could pay them back.
Jim Aloisi: Toll roads are the perfect example.
NARR: James Aloisi, who we heard briefly in the last episode, was general counsel for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Jim Aloisi: You have a captive audience of drivers. They pay tolls every day. And those tolls pay off the bonds.
NARR: The magic of it all is these bonds were not issued by the state, or by the city. They were issued by a quasi-governmental body, known as a public authority.
Jim Aloisi: And so it becomes a very powerful tool in the hands of someone who knows how to use that tool, because you're basically autonomous.
NARR: This model that Moses perfected spread rapidly around the country in the mid-20th century, forming a kind of shadow government of transit authorities, water authorities, port authorities, and of course turnpike authorities.
ARCHIVAL: The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority set a target date at which time
NARR: Our very own Turnpike Authority was created by the state legislature in 1952 with the purpose of building the state's most important highway -- what we call 'the Pike'.
ARCHIVAL: 123 miles, with 14 entrances and exits.
NARR: The way it was set up, the Turnpike board had three members, appointed by the governor. But their terms were staggered so that the whole board never changed out at once. The idea was to keep the Authority independent, unpolitical, which in theory served everyone's interests. For the bond holders, it protected their investment from meddling politicians. For the politicians, it protected them from the often controversial work of building a highway.
Mary Connaughton: politically, no governor is going to want to be responsible for people losing their homes.
NARR: This is former Turnpike board member Mary Connaughton.
Mary Connaughton: So the, the governor remains insulated by, you know, seeding all that authority into an authority. Say, wait a minute, that's not, that's not me. That's a separate entity.
Ian Coss: So in a way it's like it was designed to be unaccountable
Mary Connaughton: And that's the issue. Why should someone that's not elected by the people have such an amazing amount of power? Why?
ARCHIVAL: A Massachusetts without a toll booth is like a Massachusetts without a Dunkin Donuts. But did you know there was …
NARR: The turnpike’s power was actually only supposed to be temporary. The authority’s official mission was to build the road, pay off all its bonds and then go out of existence -- no more tolls.
ARCHIVAL: That's right. All debts paid. All booths closed. But guess what?
NARR: That’s not what happened. Because once a public authority is created, it's like a weed; it will spread. It will find new ways of justifying its existence: new reasons to issue bonds, new reasons to collect tolls. And in the 1990s…
ARCHIVAL: We believe the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority…
NARR: The Turnpike Authority found a reason:
ARCHIVAL: Most appropriate operator of the project…
NARR: the Big Dig.
Jim Aloisi: The big question in those years, was when we build this thing, who's gonna run it. Who's gonna own it, operate it and maintain it.
NARR: The Big Dig needed a long-term steward, and according to Jim Aloisi, the Turnpike Authority was an obvious choice: they knew how to maintain roads, and they knew how to collect tolls.
Jim Aloisi: And so it all made logical sense.
NARR: So in 1997, a fateful decision was made: the entire ownership of the Big Dig project was moved from the State Highway Department over to the Turnpike Authority.
ARCHIVAL: I've been thinking about, um, what's gonna happen to me next week, which is to take off one of my hats and, um, to concentrate on the Turnpike authority,
NARR: Jim Kerasiotes actually left his job as Secretary of Transportation to become head of the Turnpike Authority, because that's where the real power was.
ARCHIVAL: It's time, uh, to make that change.
NARR: To the casual observer, nothing had changed. Same project, same boss, just new titles and new letterhead. But underneath that, power was being concentrated, isolated from any checks.
Jim Aloisi: Once he became turnpike chairman. It was total, unfettered, complete control.
NARR: And I'm not sure that the people yielding that control really stopped to think about how this all might play out...
ARCHIVAL: The Big Dig has had its share of problems in the past year
NARR: So, back to early 2000. In those chaotic months when the white hot light of public outcry settled on Kerasiotes, and his broken promise to keep the project on budget.
ARCHIVAL: Mr. Kerasiotes in particular bears a deep, deep burden on this
NARR: One of the big questions was who the governor would appoint to replace Kerasiotes -- this deposed dictator of the Turnpike.
ARCHIVAL: A rotating door of Big Dig czars heading up the project.
NARR: There was virtually no attention given to the two remaining members of the Turnpike board, Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy – the convenience store magnate, and the radio host – who together, represented a majority of the board. They could have overruled Kerasiotes any time they wanted to, they just never did. But the controversy of that moment stirred them into action.
Mihos passed away in 2017 and Levy declined to be interviewed, so I can't ask them why they did what they did. I think they would tell me it was out of principle. Others have told me it was out of political opportunism. The truth is probably a little of both. In any case, Mihos and Levy would not be silent any longer.
ARCHIVAL: I guess if I sat there like a good little boy with my hands folded tape over my mouth and just nodded my head like the rest of the puppets that have been doing it for years, then we'd all be happy in Massachusetts. That's not my style.
NARR: This is Jordan Levy being interviewed at the time.
ARCHIVAL: and that's not what I intend to do to the fruition of, of, of this project.
NARR: Levy and Mihos focused their attention on Bechtel-Parsons, the company managing the Big Dig for the Turnpike Authority. That is who they held responsible for this thing that had blown up on right under their noses.
ARCHIVAL: We hired a company that is responsible for the management.
NARR: For starters, they demanded money back from the joint venture to cover some of the cost increases. Then, they put Bechtel-Parsons on notice: get straight with us, or we will fire you from this project.
ARCHIVAL: There is no such thing in this world as the only company that can complete this project.
NARR: That got people's attention.
ARCHIVAL: The first day I raised the first issue. People politically connected throughout this commonwealth called me and said, Jordan, do you know who you're dealing with here? Do you know what you're about to take on? My challenge back to them, what's your answer? What do you want to do? How much more are you gonna ask the taxpayers to pay?
NARR: Within the political establishment -- Democrat and Republican -- the prevailing view was that firing Bechtel would be catastrophic. At this moment, in 2000 and 2001, The Big Dig was finally crossing the half-way mark in terms of construction. From the street, you could peek down into the bowels of Boston and see tunnels taking shape. Over on the Charles River, the concrete towers of the new bridge were rising up day by day to meet the skyline. It was happening. And now this situation at the Turnpike was threatening to seriously rock that boat.
Jim Aloisi: I don't know that they wanted anything but attention to be perfectly candid.
NARR: I think Jim Aloisi represents the establishment view here: that Mihos and Levy were way out of line.
Jim Aloisi: You can tell by my reaction's like, I, I, I have no time or patience for gadflies and that's, that's how I viewed them. There's just unhelpful.
NARR: But the gadflies were just getting started. And they set their sights on a new issue, something that would take the conversation out of the realm of political insiders, and put it right in front of the public. The issue of tolls.
Ian Coss: So let's start from the beginning of your story.
NARR: This will require just a bit of a detour.
Ian Coss: Um, could you take me back to the day of your accident on the Mass Turnpike?
Doug Barth: Yeah, that was a long time ago.
NARR: One day in the late 1980s, Doug Barth was driving to work on the Turnpike. It was early, maybe four or five in the morning when he pulled up to the old Allston toll booth -- the very last toll on the Pike before the road ended in Boston.
Doug Barth: I was just about to throw my quarter in the basket. And, uh, a pickup truck hit me from behind. I didn't even see a coming, rammed my car through the gate, a little zuzu, kind of a bug on the windshield, or if you're driving a big pickup and, uh, instead of coming up to me and saying, uh, are you all right? He said, could you move a little bit outta the way, please? And then he got back in his truck and he drove off into the night.
NARR: No one even came to help. So Barth limped home in his battered Izuzu, and tried to put the accident behind him. For years, he didn't do anything about it, but strangely, the piece of the incident that gnawed at him was not the behavior of the other driver, or the response of the police or anything about road safety -- it was that toll booth. Why was it there in the first place?
Doug Barth: And I went to the Newton Library and in about five minutes I found the legislation that said these tolls were supposed to have come down.
NARR: The insult on top of the injury. Because remember: the toll booths were only supposed to be temporary – they were supposed to have come down once the turnpike had paid for itself. Once he realized that, Barth called up an old friend, and together they started an organization called Free the Pike – a decision that would have ripple effects they could not even imagine.
NARR: Pretty quickly, they realized this toll issue was much bigger than they had thought -- it was a sleeping giant, a dirty scab -- that they were now picking at.
ARCHIVAL: And with me now, are state Senator…
NARR: The interview requests were just constant.
ARCHIVAL: and Doug Barth, an anti toll activist,
Doug Barth: I got an 800 number to ask people if they wanted to volunteer. That rang off the hook so much that we had to hire a firm to take the inbound calls.
NARR: Tolls are a sensitive issue anywhere -- it's a tax, essentially, that you have to pay, by hand out the window of your car. But they are especially sensitive in this state because only some people have to pay them. All the highways that were built by the Interstate program – say I-91, 93, 95 -- they were and are all toll free, they had to be. There was really just this one big toll road in the whole state: the Mass Pike. And the people who drove on it knew that.
Doug Barth: And there was a meeting we had in Framingham. Which was very well attended. And at one point a priest stood up from the audience and said, this isn't about tolls, this is about honor. And when you frame an argument that way, you tap into a, a much bigger, uh, emotion.
Ian Coss: and when it's coming from a priest…
Doug Barth: Yeah. that was kind of icing on the cake.
NARR: It took three tries, but by the year 2000, Free the Pike gathered enough signatures to actually put a question on the ballot that would effectively end tolls on the Mass Pike for good. The Turnpike Authority's very existence was at stake, not to mention the jobs of all those people out collecting tolls. I mean this thing was a golden goose and a lot of people wanted to keep it alive.
ARCHIVAL: From CNN Center in Atlanta, coverage of election 2000 continues
NARR: On election night 2000, while most of us were anxiously watching the results from Florida and trying to understand what all the numbers meant...
ARCHIVAL: George W. Bush leading Al Gore by 0.15%
NARR: Doug Barth was eagerly awaiting the results of his long-shot campaign to end Pike tolls. They lost.
Doug Barth: And there was a political cartoon that night, uh, of, uh, of me walking back to a car that had broken down and, and I had a gas can with me, and the name of the car was free. The Pike. It was like, yeah, we're, we're outta gas.
NARR: But what does all that have to do with the Big Dig? So basically what happened is this: as the project's cost went up and its reputation sank, federal money started to disappear. That whole vision of the Interstate Trust Fund paying 90 cents on the dollar, that was not gonna happen. Not even close. By the end, it was more like 50 cents. That left a bunch of billions of dollars that the state now had to come up with. And those little blue toll booths were a pretty convenient way to help close the gap.
ARCHIVAL: when it comes to the big dig bill, no matter how you slice it up, people are fed up
NARR: Using Mass Pike toll money to build the Big Dig was touchy, because again, these tolls were like a tax, just for the people who happened to use this one road.
ARCHIVAL: Outrageous that east-west commuters have to pick up the tab…
NARR: And it's not like the toll payers were footing the bill for the entire Big Dig or anything, but the optics were really bad.
ARCHIVAL: Can you believe that? Pinning it all in the western suburbs
NARR: And to make it works, in 2002 the tolls were supposed to go up.
ARCHIVAL: We decided to find out what the people think of those ideas.
NARR: Mihos and Levy -- the two renegade board members -- they may not have been steeped in the world of transportation, but they understood the world of politics. And they made kind of a brilliant move. They took all the outrage over the Big Dig and Bechtel Parsons, and they combined it with all the outrage over tolls. The answer: make Bechtel pay for its mistakes, not the toll payers. In other words, there would be no toll increase.
ARCHIVAL: Why did you and Jordan Levy decide? That this was the wrong time to do that? Well, a number of things,
NARR: Here is Mihos at the time, making his case on TV.
ARCHIVAL: And under our enabling legislation, we have the unfettered right to raise tolls, lower tolls, do whatever we want on tolls, because in fact, we're an independent authority
NARR: More specifically, Mihos and Levy wanted to delay the toll increase to give themselves more time. They were at that moment trying to negotiate with Bechtel-Parsons to get money back – money that could potentially cover what those tolls were supposed to bring.
ARCHIVAL: Let's do something that's fair. Let's put off for six months this doubling of tolls on just two segments of the pike.
NARR: Once again, Mihos and Levy were pretty much on their own. The financial experts, the political establishment, they were all saying: the toll hike is necessary, even delaying it could be a disaster. You have to realize that these toll increases had been planned for years. They had been written into the bonds that were sold by the Turnpike Authority. Bonds that were supposed to be safe investments: no risk, no drama. Now at the last minute going back on this toll plan – a plan that Mihos and Levy had previously signed off on by the way – that’s a bad look for the whole state.
But as long as they were united, Mihos and Levy were unstoppable. People started calling them the "Turnpike Twins" and in theory, they answered to no one. But that theory that was about to be tested.
ARCHIVAL: When we continue, Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift joins us.
NARR: The woman who would rise to challenge the renegade board was named Jane Swift. And she was not exactly popular.
ARCHIVAL: I love my job. I have a very difficult job and I think I’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half.
NARR: As Lieutenant Governor, Swift's public image had been defined by two controversies. First, there was 'babygate.'
ARCHIVAL: the Globe had the babysitting accusations
NARR: That Swift used state-paid staff to babysit her 14-month old daughter.
ARCHIVAL: At first, Swift was adamant saying she did nothing wrong.
NARR: Then there was the private helicopter ride.
ARCHIVAL: The Herald had the story of Swift taking a state helicopter to Thanksgiving dinner.
NARR: Believe it or not, these were both national stories. I think because they spoke to a bigger cultural issue. The labor force participation rate for American women hit its all time peak in the year 2000. This was the era of the working mom, and Jane Swift became one of its unwitting symbols.
Steve Crosby: You know, if a man brought his kids to the office, he would be celebrated as a wonderful father. You know, she brings her kids to the office and she gets crucified for it.
NARR: This is Swift's Secretary of Administration and Finance, Steve Crosby:
Steve Crosby: Then all of a sudden, this woman that they knew nothing about except the helicopter and the babysitters becomes governor. And she had a tough, tough time getting past that.
NARR: Swift took the oath of office in April of 2001, after the sitting governor resigned. At age 36, she was the first female governor in the state's history, and the youngest female governor in American history. Just a month later she gained a third distinction.
ARCHIVAL: Hi everybody.
NARR: The first sitting governor to give birth -- to twins no less.
ARCHIVAL: As, uh, I'm sure you're all aware I will be discharged from the Brigham and Women's Hospital
NARR: People openly debated whether or not a women with three small children was capable of being governor. On TV, reporters pressed Swift on whether or not she would breast feed. Potential challengers started eyeing the next election, just a year away, assuming that she would be a weak candidate. And in these impossible circumstances, Swift was faced with the political mess that was the Big Dig, a mess that her predecessors had all too readily unloaded onto her lap. Jane Swift, like Jordan Levy and many other key players in this story, declined to be interviewed.
Peter Forman: To her credit, she knew that tolls were likely political suicide.
NARR: This is Swift’s chief of staff, Peter Forman.
Peter Forman: Uh, but she firmly believed that, as governor, uh, she had a role here to make sure that the turnpike authority made good on the plan.
Ian Coss: so she, like, she chose to make this her fight.
Peter Forman: She did. She did.
NARR: And she was right: it would be political suicide.
Mid-RollNARR: In the fall of 2001, all the pieces were set for a major confrontation between the Turnpike Authority and the Governors’ office. Mihos and Levy were determined to delay the toll increase, and Jane Swift was determined to make it happen. Then, just as the pressure was starting to build, there was something else…
ARCHIVAL: Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack.
Raphael Lewis: When nine 11 happened That is very important context.
NARR: Raphael Lewis took over the Globe's transportation beat in 2001, and soon found himself covering several of the state's public authorities.
Raphael Lewis: The Massachusetts Port Authority was similar to the turnpike authority in, in that it had always been a place where the kind of nepotistic political appointees had gone.
NARR: As you may recall though, the Mass Port Authority runs Logan Airport, which is where ten hijackers walked through security carrying knives and razor blades, and boarded the two planes that would slam into the twin towers.
Raphael Lewis: Can you blame the leaders of the Massport authority for nine 11? Absolutely not. But what it did was shine a very harsh light on the fact that there was essentially unprofessional political leadership, and bad stuff can happen when unprofessionals are running an important bureaucracy.
NARR: Sound familiar?
Raphael Lewis: Look to Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and now we have the largest at that time infrastructure project in the history of the country going awry. Political leadership, nepotism, the whole same thing.
NARR: So 9/11 upped the ante – especially for Swift, because all eyes were now on her to fix these authorities.
Raphael Lewis: You know, it's pretty explicit that you as the governor, he's like, Well if I'm gonna own the bad parts of this, I want control of it.
NARR: But it also upped the ante for the Turnpike Board. Because people stayed home after 9/11, toll revenue dropped – and the question of how to keep funding the Big Dig, became that much more pressing.
But in October of 2001, Mihos and Levy got an opening – a chance to make Bechtel pay up. Facing the threat of being fired, the president of Bechtel personally came to the Authority's headquarters, along with senior staff, and actually made an offer: we'll give you $50 million dollars back. It's not as much as what Mihos and Levy were hoping for, but in simple numbers, that was more than enough to delay the toll hike for 6 months – all in all, a win.
Now here's where things get contentious, and bit murky. When those negotiations broke off for lunch, and in a surprise move, the Bechtel team went across town to the Governor's office for a separate meeting.
Steve Crosby: They did come see me, I remember that.
NARR: With Steve Crosby, Secretary of Administration and Finance, who does not have a clear memory of what transpired.
Steve Crosby: But I, who knows what I might have said. I mean, I, I probably said something that indicated frustration with MI hosts and Levy.
NARR: I talked to one other person who was in that meeting – Big Dig spokesperson Andy Paven – who told me that in so many words, Crosby assured the Bechtel staff that the Governor’s office would handle this situation at the Turnpike. Apparently the Bechtel delegation took that as a message. Because later that same day, when the Bechtel team returned to the Turnpike to resume negotiations, they rescinded their $50 million offer, and walked out. As far as Mihos was concerned, the governor had just stabbed them in the back. Without that money from Bechtel, the Turnpike was backed into a corner, and it would be very difficult to deliver on their promise not to raise tolls.
Three weeks later, the Turnpike board met formally to address the two big issues driving this whole feud: raising tolls and potentially firing Bechtel-Parsons. But just as the toll issue finally came up for a vote, a cell phone started ringing – it was the Governor's office. Mihos took the call, as the media and staff all waited.
Peter Forman: I do remember I was in Quincy at, um, celebration of the, uh, birthday of, John Adams down at the Church of the Presidents.
NARR: It was Peter Forman – the governor’s chief of staff
Peter Forman: I think I stepped out of the ceremony, out onto the sidewalk to uh, try to get a hold of him.
NARR: Forman had been trying to get a read on Mihos for weeks. And as the big toll vote approached, he sensed that Mihos, despite all the bravado, wasn’t sure what to do.
Peter Forman: In part because I think he knew he had no plan B, he didn't not have any secret plan in his coat pocket about how he was gonna recoup the money or replace it or get betel to do anything.
NARR: That day on the phone, Forman says he asked Mihos to at least tell him how he was going to vote. Mihos wouldn't commit one way or the other. So Forman tried to stress to Mihos just how high the stakes were.
Peter Forman: And there were just so many times you can tell somebody, um, this was agreed to you undo this, this has real consequences. We're not talking 10 or $15 here. This can affect bond ratings, this can affect state budgets and finances. Even then he, he didn't tell me, but I could, I could tell in his voice…
Ian Coss: He sounded like a man who was about to take a big plunge into something uncertain?
Peter Forman: And didn't want to tell me that he was doing it.
NARR: They hung up the phone and Mihos returned to his seat. He recalls in his book someone leaning over as he sat down, and saying "Tell them to fuck themselves, and vote your conscience." Mihos and Levy voted to delay the toll increase by six months; then they voted to hire a team of outside specialists that would review Bechtel-Parson's performance, and make a recommendation within 90 days on whether to terminate the company's contract.
With that, the Turnpike was now in full revolt.
NARR: Before we press any deeper into the strange saga of the Turnpike Twins and Governor Swift, I think it's important to remember that this is all more or less palace intrigue we’re talking about: powerful people trying to get more power. And meanwhile, down below, beyond the castle walls, there is a whole kingdom of regular people just trying to go to work every day and get this project done.
ARCHIVAL: You hear so much bad publicity about the papers, and there’s a lot of guys down here come down day in day out to get the job done.
NARR: The project employed five thousand people -- crane operators, piledrivers, sandhogs, carpenters -- working night and day to keep this thing moving.
ARCHIVAL: When people come in and they see for themselves, then they realize that on top, you just have an illusion, but down below is the real action.
Mike Lewis: We were completing $3 million of construction a day.
NARR: Three million dollars of work, every day.
Mike Lewis: 90 to a hundred million dollars a month
NARR: That's over a billion dollars a year.
Mike Lewis: for four straight years, there was that much work going on.
NARR: Mike Lewis was the third and final Project Director of the Big Dig – after Peter Zuk, and Pat Moynihan – if you’re keeping track. And he was in charge when the Turnpike Revolt began.
Mike Lewis: But we can't let that influence have to keep building the project. We have keep going because if we stop, we stop. It's really gonna get bad.
NARR: When you think about the scale of this project on the ground, the number of moving pieces, those queens and princes waging their petty little war for control of it look a little absurd. But keep in mind those are the people with authority over this whole operation.
Ian Coss: Were there days when he was actually ambiguous who you should answer to?
Mike Lewis: Yes.
Ian Coss: Like, it was unclear who the head of the Turnpike authority was.
Mike Lewis: Right. Right. And even if everybody had the best intentions, through their own lens mm-hmm, those intentions weren't always aligned.
Ian Coss: Yeah. I mean, it's the largest public works project the nation has ever undertaken, and it's like almost headless at moments, or at least the head
Mike Lewis: is, a hydra.
Ian Coss: Is a Yeah. That's a good way of putting it.
Mike Lewis: Yeah.
Ian Coss: the three heads are all attacking each other.
Mike Lewis: Right, right.
ARCHIVAL: Good evening. It's fair to say the Mass Turnpike Authority Board is in a state of disarray
NARR: In November of 2001, Jane Swift made her next move. And it was a big one.
Paul Johnson: The three members of the Turnpike Board, were in a meeting on the morning of November 16th.
NARR: Paul Johnson was standing just outside the door, watching the meeting – when something weird happened.
Paul Johnson: All I remember is I saw the governor's lawyer go into the room.
NARR: The lawyer was carrying two sealed envelopes.
Paul Johnson: I had to literally force my way into the room. As if you were attending the seventh game of the World Series at Fenway Park
NARR: And once inside, Johnson witnessed a bizarre scene: the chairman, mid-meeting, halting all business to make a surprise announcement.
ARCHIVAL: The governor has, uh, and, and I regret this on, on, on both a personal and professional level, uh, has, uh, filed notices of, uh, terminating my colleagues, uh, director Levy and, and, and Vice Jim and for cause. And with that chairman, David Forsburg walked out.
NARR: We were now in uncharted waters. The governor had the power to appoint Turnpike board members, but no one could say for sure if she had the right to fire them. There was a flurry of consultation with the legal staff. And then...
ARCHIVAL: Despite being dismissed, board members, Jordan Levy and Christie, my stayed right where they were
NARR: Mihos, with his usual knack for theater, simply moved over into the Chairman's seat and the meeting went on.
ARCHIVAL: The vice Chairman assumes the duties of the chair.
Paul Johnson: It was a scene from Hollywood.
NARR: Paul Johnson was there at the meeting for a reason: he was Jordan Levy's lawyer.
I found my way to Johnson after many months of chasing down leads for this episode. It seemed like, for various reasons, no one wanted to talk about this particular piece of the story. Off the record, maybe, if I was lucky.
But when I finally got on the phone with Paul Johnson, he seemed eager to talk, and he asked me a strange question: did I remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when our hero arrives in a hidden cave filled with treasures, in search of the holy grail? And there in the cave is a grizzled old knight, dressed in chainmail, who has been there 700 years -- just waiting for someone to finally come looking. That, Johnson told me, was how he felt when he got my call.
For Johnson, the legal dispute between the Turnpike board and Governor Swift is not an embarrassing chapter in state politics that is best forgotten. It is a historic case, the ultimate test -- in this state at least -- of just how independent a public authority truly is.
Paul Johnson: Our system of government is really designed to avoid tyranny. It's not designed to be the most efficient form of government in the world. And part of that is public authorities. Uh, it's part of the world of checks and balances that no one entity has all the power.
NARR: Public authorities are sometimes even described as the 'fourth branch of government.' They were designed to be at arm's length from the other branches, beyond the reach of the capricious and short-sighted politicians. That was the authority's strength, and it was part of the reason investors were willing to buy their bonds in the first place. And remember: those bonds are a huge engine of infrastructure spending of all kinds. So if a governor can simply decide one day that she doesn't like what the authority is doing, and then purge its leaders, that independence doesn't mean much any more. For Johnson, that was the bigger principle at stake here:
Paul Johnson: How do you respect the principle of an independent authority when times are tough? And with the Big Dig, times were tough, I respect that. But is that a rationale for disregarding the independence of public authorities, which is what drives this financial stream to create infrastructure in the United States of America?
NARR: That's a big question, and it needed to be answered quickly
Paul Johnson: We couldn't have ambiguity as to who's in charge.
NARR: Johnson first met Jordan Levy on November 1st. His client was then fired on November 16th. And on December 5th, they stood together before the state's highest court.
Paul Johnson: by legal standards that's a mad dash. That's a complete sprint.
NARR: Johnson was there to argue that Mihos and Levy could not be fired, because the original legislation creating the Turnpike Authority did not even have a provision for firing board members.
Paul Johnson: It was a policy decision made by the legislature in 1952 to create an authority that was truly independent.
NARR: At least, that's what they argued. The court didn’t buy it.
Paul Johnson: The State Supreme Court said ‘everybody has to be accountable to somebody.’
NARR: And that somebody was the Governor, Jane Swift. But the court left a little opening: she could only dismiss a board member if she had a good reason.
Paul Johnson: members may be removed for malfeasance, misfeasance, or willful neglect.
NARR: The question now was: were Mihos and Levy malfeasant or misfeasant when they refused to raise tolls on the Mass Pike? That question would be settled at a second hearing, scheduled for March of 2002.
ARCHIVAL: Good evening tonight, acting Governor Jane Swift sticks to her guns.
NARR: But in the meantime, both sides tried to sell their argument to the public.
Paul Johnson: At that point it becomes improvisational theater.
ARCHIVAL: What they were being charged with. We gave them a 20 page document outlining places where we thought they had been financially irresponsible
Paul Johnson: Jane Swift presented herself as the voice of fiscal responsibility.
ARCHIVAL: They will now have a chance to come in and make their case,
Paul Johnson: Then the topic became of interest on talk radio,
ARCHIVAL: Good afternoon everybody. This is Howie Carr with you today
Paul Johnson: Columnists like Hai Carr dubbed Jane Swift, the queen of Tolls. And that changes the whole dynamic.
Steve Crosby: The toll issues made it public.
NARR: Again, Steve Crosby, who was by this time Swift's chief of staff.
Steve Crosby: that's like, the, uh, price of a gallon of gas going up, something everybody could understand. , you know,
ARCHIVAL: do you think it's unfair, uh, to charge, um, Western commuters so much? Yeah. I mean, why should one, one part
NARR: Mihos and Levy were able to tap into that same well of resentment that the Free the Pike movement had.
ARCHIVAL: Would it affect your choice for governor? Possibly.
NARR: While Swift found herself in the very awkward position of fighting for a toll increase, in an election year.
ARCHIVAL: Well, first of all, let's be clear, it was not my plan. It was a plan that the legislature.
NARR: And however you viewed the parties involved, it made for good drama.
Raphael Lewis: I remember this being front page news, so it wasn't bad for me either. Like I was having a blast with this.
NARR: News reporters like Raphael Lewis, gave a lot of credence to the concerns Mihos and Levy were raising -- about holding Bechtel accountable, and making sure toll payers were getting a fair deal.
Raphael Lewis: I was pretty sympathetic to them, frankly, and it felt to me like this was kind of a big footing going on from Beacon Hill.
ARCHIVAL: We've had the power and and the, courage to tell the people of Massachusetts the truth.
NARR: Levy and Mihos worked that narrative -- the underdogs, the rebels, the crusaders.
Steve Crosby: Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing media likes, you know, here are these two people.
ARCHIVAL: There will be a due process, And it will be about the big dig
Steve Crosby: Fighting for God, truth in the American way,
ARCHIVAL: We're an independent authority. It's supposed to be. Yeah. Supposed to be.
Steve Crosby: It was like a comedy show, you know, it was just, no one could believe that what was going on.
NARR: For months, as all this played out, the Turnpike board did not meet -- could not meet -- because no one knew who was actually on it. Contracts could not be confirmed, claims could not be settled, decisions remained on hold while we debated the merits of a fifty cent toll increase.
ARCHIVAL: But folks who use 16 and 17 don't pay. Yes, they do. They, they don't through the town tolls for heaven's sakes,
Steve Crosby: And it just made government look ridiculous. It made the governor look ridiculous. It made them look ridiculous. And, crazy is appealing, right? That people love crazy. It's a story.
ARCHIVAL: All right, well, we shall see what happens over the next few days. Thank you. So thank you very much for coming, Christy Mihos.
NARR: Until finally, everyone got their day in court.
ARCHIVAL: SJC Courtroom
Paul Johnson: So the court held its hearings in a large room with high ceilings and hugely high windows,
NARR: Again, attorney Paul Johnson.
Paul Johnson: The justice wore their black robes. There were seven sitting in the panel. There was a lot at stake. They knew it and they knew they needed to come up with a decision.
ARCHIVAL: Your Honor, I think you've accurately stated the standard…
NARR: In some ways, the case was sweeping: who had ultimate authority over the Big Dig? But it was argued on very specific terms. Were these two board members acting misfeasantly or malfeasantly when they voted to delay the toll increase by six months.
ARCHIVAL: What evidence was there? How... What evidence... of lack of financial responsibility, other than the tolls.
Each side got fifteen minutes to make their argument, strictly timed.
Paul Johnson: There's a red light that goes on when you've got 30 seconds to go or something like that.
Ian Coss: And at that point it doesn't matter if you're mid-sentence, mid argument, you wrap it up real quick.
Paul Johnson: Yes, sir
ARCHIVAL: On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled four to three.
NARR: The final ruling was close -- but decisive.
ARCHIVAL: acting Governor Jane Swift. Overstepped her powers. When she fired Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy
NARR: This was, the majority said, ultimately a difference of opinion about how to pay the authority's debts. It was not malfeasance, misfeasance, or willful neglect. And therefore, it was none of Jane Swift's business.
Paul Johnson: The majority says in its opinion, and I'll just read one sentence, “It is the independent judgment of the members that lies at the heart of this matter.” And I think that summarizes it in one sentence.
NARR: The independent judgment of the members – meaning, in this case, Mihos and Levy. So, Jane Swift took round one, the renegades took round two, but in the end everyone lost. Well, almost everyone.
ARCHIVAL: Massachusetts has long been a place noted for its opportunity.
NARR: Jane Swift was so politically damaged by the whole toll issue, that a wealthy businessman who didn't even live in the state of Massachusetts, decided to jump into the governor's race. That would be Mitt Romney. It was later revealed that Christy Mihos had personally – and covertly – commissioned a poll on Romney’s behalf that helped convince Romney.
ARCHIVAL: I am announcing this afternoon my decision to end my campaign for governor.
NARR: Swift dropped out before the primary even took place, clearing the way for Romney's rise into national politics. She never held elected office again.
ARCHIVAL: I have a lot of plans. I'll be back at the State House tomorrow morning, uh, with my armor back on, uh, ready to, uh, make sure.
NARR: Then, in the summer of 2002, just after Mihos and Levy reclaimed their seats, the state legislature passed a bill expanding the Turnpike Board to five members, meaning the renegades were no longer a majority. Swift appointed the two new members. With that the Turnpike Revolt was over. The toll increase went into effect, Bechtel-Parsons stayed on the job, the Big Dig got built.
NARR: In addition to all the people who didn’t want to talk to me about this story, there were others who told me that it wasn’t really worth talking about. That this was all a distraction – a quirky side-show that changed nothing. I hear that point, but I think there’s something very revealing in this whole drama about how quickly a project can spiral when the narrative turns negative. How people can turn on each other, how all of us can lose focus on what it is we’re building. But maybe more than anything, this story captures the strange nature of the public authority – this creature that as one writer put it, is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ – not quite public, not quite private, but has come to play a huge role in our lives.
We entrust authorities with running the subways, providing electricity – and yet I would guess that most people have no idea how they actually operate, who they actually answer to.
The sad thing about the Turnpike revolt, is that even with all the attention heaped on it, the actual issues at the center of the feud, didn't get addressed. How should we cover the cost increases of the Big Dig? How should we hold Bechtel-Parsons accountable for mistakes they may have made? How should we structure the leadership of this massive project?
Raising tolls, firing people, expanding the board -- those were quick fixes, patches to keep things moving. But the full reckoning would have come. And this time, no one would be laughing.
ARCHIVAL: This is a very sad day in the Commonwealth, and I wanna express my sympathy. To the family of the woman passenger who was killed while driving through the I 90 Connector Tunnel last night. Today We pray for her and for those who loved her.
NARR: That's next time.
NARR: The show is produced by Isabel Hibbard and myself, Ian Coss. It’s edited by Lacy Roberts. The editorial supervisor is Stephanie Leydon with support this episode from Elena Eberwein (Eber-wine) . Mei Lei is the project manager, and the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robins.
If you want to know more about the shadowy world of public authorities, there is really one book you should read: The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It makes this little podcast look like, well, a little podcast. All the archival audio of national news is courtesy of C-SPAN. The local stuff is from GBH, and you can see it at GBH News dot org.
The artwork is by Matt Welch. Our closing song is “ETA” by Damon and Naomi.
The Big Dig is a production of GBH News and distributed by PRX.