State calls for more robust transport funding

A “21st Century Transportation plan” unveiled by the Patrick administration Monday calls for a commitment to funding improvements to rail, bus and highways across Massachusetts, with a range of funding possibilities to pay for it.

The plan calls for $362.4 million to improve the passenger rail route between Springfield and Boston and would provide for a $1 million budget increase for the Franklin Regional Transit Authority and a $32.2 million increase to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority in the coming year, the largest of all RTAs in the state.

Among other improvements called for in the plan is reconstruction of Route 2 in the center of Erving.

“It’s all good news,” said Maureen Mullaney, transportation program manager for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “These are all things we’ve been saying for years and years and years. What’s new is that they’re finally trying to figure out a financing strategy. In the past, it’s been too little too late. This seems like a concerted effort to shift that dynamic to address that revenue need.”

The plan to invest in infrastructure, and to come up with a mechanism to raise money to replace some of the federal funds that are expected to dry up, are being seen by planners and legislators around the region as a step toward addressing some of the gaps between identified in a series of hearings around the state last year. It will be followed by a funding proposal the Patrick administration is expected to release in coming weeks to provide for an extra $5.2 billion for road and highway repair over the next 10 years to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges and ease congestion on major arteries around the state, $3.8 billion over that time for existing transit service around the state and $275 million for registry and airport maintenance.

With an additional $1.1 billion over 10 years for regional transit authorities, the plan would end the practice of borrowing to fund annual operations, forward-funding them instead to cut borrowing costs.

The governor’s proposal represents an attempt by the state to raise more money than what’s typically available from transportation bonds, said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, vice chairman of Ways and Means.

Spending from transportation bonds tends to fall short in meeting the state’s infrastructure needs.

“There’s been a recognition for quite a while that we don’t generate enough transportation revenue to satisfy all the needs for roads, bridges, mass transit and all the rest. There’s a consensus in the Legislature that we need something,” said Kulik, adding that the needs of the western part of the state are different from those in the East.

“An important part of this discussion is going to be regional equity around the state,” Kulik said. “When the Legislature approved emergency funding for the MBTA last year, I think we laid a strong marker out for everyone to see that we’re not going to continue to send money back east without an equitable amount coming back to western Mass.”

For example, Kulik says he opposes the idea of a large increase in the gasoline tax because people in this region have to travel long distances to get to work and school with few public alternatives.

In any case, Kulik said, “I really think there’s some acknowledgment that we can’t continue as we are without investing in our infrastructure, because it’s important to the economy. It’s probably going to be a mixture of many different transportation revenue options.”

In releasing the proposal, Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey said, “We have spent the last year engaging our customers, the business community and various stakeholders in a conversation about what kind of transportation system they want. What is clear is that we can’t afford the system we have today, much less the system we all want. This plan clearly articulates our vision for a 21st-Century transportation system and the steps we must take to achieves that.”

The plan would provide an additional $100 million per year for Chapter 90 highway aid to towns to improve local roads and bridges, and $1.175 billion over 10 years to speed up repair of local bridges and complete large bridge projects.

But it presents a number of options for raising additional funding, including increasing the gas tax, payroll, sales, or income tax; a new fee on vehicle registrations; a tax on vehicle miles traveled, increases in fares, fees and tolls, as well as collecting Massachusetts Turnpike tolls on the section west of Springfield.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said none of those recommendations are popular, but he would favor seeing the state collect sales tax on online purchases to bring in an estimated $250 million to $750 million a year.

“If we need to raise $1 billion, 25 to 75 percent could be a hit on the online sales tax, which doesn’t raise tax on anybody, it’s not a tax increase, it’s a compliance effort.” But because of interstate commerce provisions, such a move will require federal approval, he said.

Rosenberg predicted “a very energetic debate,” taking place after Patrick has filed a funding proposal for the plan in the coming weeks.

Because transportation projects have traditionally been underfunded by limits on bonding authority, he said, “This may be the first time in a long time that the spending plan might come close to mirroring the revenue plan. “This time, because we’re going to lay out a plan that’s real and so much larger than the usual, we know we can’t responsibly vote for it without an additional revenue package.”

Federal budget cuts could play out in two significant ways, however, Rosenberg cautioned: direct cuts in federal transportation dollars as well as cuts in other funding that could force the state to shift its funding toward other areas.

Rosenberg agreed with Kulik on the need for equitable transportation funding.

“We’ve made clear throughout this whole discussion that you can’t just talk about Boston, eastern Mass. and the MBTA. You have to talk about public transit in general.”

Gov. Deval Patrick added, “What’s plain as day is that we have to make choices. We can choose to invest in ourselves, to invest in a growth strategy that has been proven time and again to work. Or we can choose to do nothing. But let us be clear: doing nothing is a choice, too. And that choice has consequences. It means longer commutes, cuts in services, larger fare and fee increases, and a continuation of the self-defeating economics of cutting off large parts of our population from opportunity and growth.”

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