Aloisi to lawmakers: ‘I give up. You win’

Former transportation chief losing hope

DEAR MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE:

When I was Secretary of Transportation in 2009, I thought I could use my many years of good will and fundraising on your behalf to leverage support for a 19-cent gas tax increase. And when that idea was scuttled, and I was spurned by many of you – many longtime friends I had helped year in and year out – even after that, I was not ready to give up. Maybe it was me, I thought. Maybe the messenger was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t frame the issues as well as I should have. Maybe I shouldn’t have called out “reform before revenue” as the meaningless slogan it was. Surely, I hoped, surely there will be another day – and soon – when the realities of our underfunded transportation system will be clearer, and more urgent, and a better messenger will emerge. Surely then the Legislature will do the right thing.

Well, I was wrong.

This year, another off-election year, the governor once again took a bold approach. His number was spot-on: we need about $1 billion a year to set our transportation finances right, and to invest in the critical state of good repair and expansion projects that will keep our economy competitive into the first half of this century. That $1 billion figure resembles almost to the nickel the number that the 2007 Transportation Finance Commission said was needed. The number has not shrunk – and the needs have become even more urgent.

This year, the legislative leaders are closer to forced term-limits retirement, and therefore more able to make the tough choices without jeopardizing their political careers. Or so I thought.
How was I to know that the legislature would take another walk on the future? How was I to guess that 2009’s aversion to the gas tax would become this year’s modest embrace of a totally inconsequential 3 cent gas tax hike? How could I have predicted that the Legislature would embed in its plan a directive that MBTA fares and tolls once again increase, making the allocation of the burden even more egregiously inequitable, directed against the poor, the middle class, students, and the users of our only east/west interstate?

Instead of the $1 billion dollar solution we desperately need, we get instead a “maybe, if all goes well, $500 million fix” – if all your best case assumptions pan out. We know how that worked with the sales tax assumptions that informed MBTA forward-funding – badly.

You know, Legislature, I think you are misreading your constituents. I think that if you really asked them and understood them, you would find that the large majority of us support investing in our future. We support paying more as long as we know where the money is going. We want a better MBTA, a more reliable and upgraded system.

We would rather pay a higher gas tax and invest in our future, our gas tax being a small fraction of what we willingly pay to fuel the profits of oil companies and foreign states that welcome our foolhardy energy dependence. We want to attract and keep the new wave of creative thinkers and jobs creators who are increasingly drawn to public transportation. We don’t want Boston to become Detroit or St. Louis (no offense to those cities). We want Boston to have the kind of ease of mobility that makes a great city great.

But you chose another route, Legislature. You chose the kick-the-can route, the route you have taken time and time again, the familiar, comfortable route. You have kicked the can before, and been re-elected, so why not do it again? The poor and the working class, the students and the seniors who use public transportation – well, let’s be honest, they have no real voice in the halls of power, so why worry about their needs? I mean, when is the last time they had the same access as the guys who can afford good lobbyists and fundraisers at four-star hotels? (I long for the days when fundraising meant access to the cheese dip at Anthony’s and stuffed clams at Tecce’s, but I digress).

In 2009 I had my eyes opened almost every day. I saw the people squeezed into the 28 Bus, with no shelter at Mattapan Station, so whenever it rained they got wet. I saw the smoke rising from the tracks at South Station and at Chinatown Station – on the same night – because aging systems failed. I looked into the eyes of the young mother who said to me, almost verbatim: “Please don’t cut my service. Raise my fares if you have to – I don’t know where I will get the money – but don’t cut my service because it’s the only way I can get to work.”

Every day my eyes were opened, and it pains me still that I couldn’t persuade you to do more. I have thought since then that it was my fault that I could not get it done. I was the “insider” who was supposed to be able to do it. But now, witnessing what just happened this year, I realize that I’ve been too harsh on myself. It wasn’t me – it was you. Thanks, Legislature, for opening my eyes again.

Well – I’ve got to go. I have tried this year to help frame the best arguments for solving the transportation funding shortfall once and for all. I put out many ideas, and offered many solutions, and hoped that perhaps some would get traction. I still had a large measure of hope in me. But not anymore.

I give up. You win.

And we all lose.

Meet the Author

Sincerely,
Jim Aloisi

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation.