BOSTON -- A deal that would transfer the operation of the Central Artery and Third Harbor Tunnel to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is close at hand, according to several sources in Boston.

Although there have been rumors about the plan since earlier this year, it now appears that the state legislature will attempt to pass a bill authorizing the plan before the end of the year.

Initially, some state lawmakers tried to include the plan in a bill that would authorize issuance of $7.7 billion of bonds that would be used solely to finance transportation improvements. The bill has been pending in the legislature since March.

Over the summer, state lawmakers approved a portion of the bill for road repairs, but the plan to put the artery and tunnel under the Turnpike Authority remained in limbo.

Now that the legislature is reconsidering the plan, one component that was included in the original plan may be omitted from this one -- the sale of the Tobin Bridge.

The original plan proposed selling the bridge, which spans from Boston to Chelsea and is owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority, or Massport, for $40 million to the Turnpike Authority. But Massport officials recently said that amount would not be sufficient.

The new plan leaves the Tobin Bridge to Massport.

Although the Turnpike Authority is still run by appointees of former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, that will change in 1996, when Gov. William E Weld will get to appoint a new chairman.

Under the proposal, the Turnpike Authority would become the administrator of a new conglomeration of roads and tunnels. The authority would provide a portion of the new third harbor tunnel's toll revenues to the state, which may be used to offset Massachusetts' share of the $7.7 billion Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project.

Until now, Massachusetts has not yet determined how it will pay its share of the project's costs. About 85% of the construction costs are being financed by the federal government, with the state covering the balance.

Originally, the project was estimated to cost $2.3 billion. As those costs have multiplied, there has been talk out of Washington that the federal government may want to Cap the amount of federal money used for the project.

For example, a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Highway Administration was highly critical of the project's cost increases and said the federal government should consider capping its spending at $8 billion.

If spending exceeds $8 billion, the report calls on the federal government to lower its share of the project's costs to 50% from 85%.

Moreover, federal officials have said that Massachusetts needs to show how it will pay for its share of the project's costs, refine cost estimates, and give that information to the federal government.

But several sources said that the importance of Massachusetts' congressional delegation to the Clinton Administration would prevent any cap on the federal government's spending.

The proposal outlining the Turnpike Authority's takeover of the project may provide some of the information being demanded by the federal government, sources said.

However, the new proposal may run into trouble in the legislature. The Turnpike Authority has long been one of the state's most successful revenue raisers.

If the authority is forced to pick up some of the costs from the construction of the artery and tunnel, then tolls may have to be raised on the state's tunnels and highways, sources said.

Although the legislature will convene before the end of the year, one source said the bill may be too difficult to get through until next year.

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