Casinos and transit fare hikes a “one-two” punch

Raising gas tax would share funding burden with motorists

We now appear to be on the cusp of a “one-two” punch aimed at the poor and the middle class in Massachusetts. Punch number one will be the all-but-certain arrival of casino gambling, which is a tax on citizens who can least afford to pay it – a cynical way to avoid revenue increases where all citizens, including the wealthy, share the burden. Punch number two will be the likely increase next year in MBTA fares, and perhaps even service cuts, to help fill a projected operating budget deficit.

We may well need a fare increase, but we also need to share the transportation funding burden with motorists. Any fare increase without a concomitant gas tax increase will exacerbate the already unacceptable equity gap between those citizens who use public transportation and those who drive cars. We haven’t raised the gas tax since 1991, two years before Bill Clinton became President, and the gas tax isn’t tied to inflation, so its real purchasing power has declined significantly. We have raised MBTA fares four times since then.

The contrast is stark. Gambling overwhelmingly attracts and preys upon those who can least afford to engage in such activities, offering the false hope of winning big, and the false promise that wealth can be achieved from luck rather than pluck. A gas tax increase, while regressive to a point, requires everyone who drives to have some skin in the game.

In one of my last speeches as state Transportation Secretary, at a Women’s Transportation Seminar forum, I said:

“Here in Massachusetts, our Regional Transit Authorities and the MBTA are chronically underfunded. And because they are often the mobility choice of last resort, for the poor, the elderly, and students, and for the working lower and middle class, they have no powerful voice in the legislature, and few in the Executive branch.

We can talk all we want about the moral and economic imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but until we find a solution to our chronic underfunding and under-appreciation of public transportation, we will never free ourselves of the bondage of the internal combustion engine and the auto-centric society that we continue to subsidize even though it no longer represents a paradigm for the quality of life we strive to embrace as civilized people.”

Raising the gas tax is the right thing to do, not simply because we need the money, not simply because it provides a small measure of modal and social equity, but also because it encourages modal shift, and with modal shift will come increased public pressure and interest in ensuring a well funded and maintained public transportation system. The issues of modal equity, social justice, clean air, energy security and economic growth are all connected – and what ties them together is a smart, forward looking public policy that understands that there comes a time when political leaders need to make difficult decisions.

I stopped by Dewey Square today to meet some of the Occupy Boston activists and offer encouragement. As a citizen, and as a former state official, I thought it was important that some folks there know that their efforts were appreciated.

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Meeting and talking to some of the people in Dewey Square, I believe that we may be moving toward a moment where people will come together to address what is fast becoming the defining issue of our time: not merely the gross disparity between the super rich and everyone else, but the continued, persistent and callous failure of our state and national governments to spread the burden fairly. Here in Massachusetts, we are on course to continue to place the financial burden disproportionately upon those least able to afford it. Who will be angry enough to speak out?

James Aloisi was secretary of transportation from January through October 2009. This piece first appeared as a comment made in response to Kevin C. Peterson’s Voices column, “The casino misery toll.”