Speaker steps back, not forward, on transportation

The Speaker of the House took the transportation funding debate a step backward when he announced at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast that while he supported the governor’s focus on fixing our chronic transportation funding deficit, he was not inclined to support funding or revenue levels to fulfill the governor’s vision.  This is unfortunate.  The governor’s transportation proposal is a fact-based, informed, and candid analysis of the state’s transportation funding problem; its negative impacts on the economy, job growth, and quality of life, and the urgent need to find a lasting way to fix it.  It derives from the 2007 Transportation Finance Commission reports, and from the work we did in 2009 when as Transportation Secretary I helped lead an effort to solve these same problems, an effort that ran aground on the shoals of a rhetorical sound bite – “reform before revenue” – that had much appeal but failed to solve the problem. 

Well, we did reform.  The T’s notorious retirement and health care benefits were reformed to conform to more standard benefits packages for public employees.  The former organization structure that siloed state transportation agencies was, for the most part, broken apart as a new consolidated MassDOT replaced the old Executive Office of Transportation.  This consolidation has resulted in significant cost savings and efficiencies that have been well documented. 

What we didn’t do in 2009 was take the tougher decisions that require political courage and foresight.  We didn’t raise the gas tax, as I proposed.  In that proposal, two cents of the proposed 19 cent gas tax increase would have been dedicated to reversing the appalling practice of paying employees with borrowed money. This abuse of the capital budget masks the severity of our funding crisis while mortgaging our future with debt tied to payrolls rather than roads and bridges. The Speaker appears to support fixing this practice, which is a good thing, but it’s not enough.

I have written about the need to confront not simply the funding crisis, but the equally urgent need to bring equity and fairness and innovation to our transportation system.  We have not raised the gas tax since 1991, while raising MBTA fares five times in that period.  We have been unable to invest in MBTA state of good repair to the extent that is necessary and we have been unable to invest in critically needed new rolling stock, in signal systems, and in smart technologies that will make the system more user-friendly. We have shortchanged Regional Transit Authorities that are the regional lifelines for people who in most cases do not have mobility choices.  Our public transportation system is a necessity of daily life for students, for seniors, for middle class workers commuting to their jobs from the suburbs, for everyone who wants to get to Fenway Park, or Mass General Hospital, or Boston Medical, or Boston Garden.

But public transportation is also critical to our state’s future as a vibrant venue for private sector investment and jobs growth.  The innovators who will drive the next generation’s economy will depend increasingly on having a truly multi-modal transportation system, a system where more people are choosing to use public transportation because it is tied to technology, environmentally cleaner, more convenient, more affordable, and more connected to a higher quality of life. That is what younger people, creative people – tomorrow’s job creators – aspire to. We need to rebuild the MBTA to meet that standard.  Just stopping the bleeding isn’t enough. We must remake and renew our system, and that takes a robust revenue-generation plan.

I have previously laid out a plan for revenue generation that is fair, technology based, and transparent.  The plan, in brief, is (i) raise the gas tax by 20 cents, divide the increase equally between transit and highways, and automatically let it adjust for inflation, (ii) introduce a pure user-fee system called VMT where motorists pay a per-mile fee only for those state highways and interstates that they actually use, and (iii) provide cities and town with the local option to impose a parking assessment on non-residential parking, with those revenues dedicated to improving local public transit, bike, and pedestrian mobility choices. Of course, there are alternatives to these ideas.  For example, rather than raise the gas tax, the Legislature could keep the gas tax at its current rate and impose a sales tax on it, dedicating those funds to transportation. I have written about these and other alternatives on these pages, and you can take a look at the archives if you’d like.

Meet the Author

We are at a critical time – an economy in recovery offers a more opportune moment that we faced in 2009 to take the hard but necessary decisions that are critical to our future.  The governor has, as he did in 2009, taken the important first step of laying out the problem, offering a meaningful plan for improving our transportation system in a lasting way.  Now the Legislature must step up to the challenge.  We cannot accept a repeat of past practices of paring down the solution to a point where it is no real solution at all.  Kicking the can once again is generationally irresponsible. Taking small and ineffective steps will only delay a problem that can only be solved with significant action on the revenue front.  There are fair, sustainable, transparent, and transportation-based revenue solutions.  The time to act boldly is now.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation.