There are answers to T funding crisis

Gas tax, Logan fee, and VMT could play role

There are solutions.

The MBTA funding crisis remains, even after action to raise fares and reduce service. The Patrick administration has been clear that there will be an even larger operating deficit in the next fiscal year.  What is worse, critical state-of-good-repair needs, which impact operational reliability and safety, remain unfunded. Important expansion projects such as the Green Line extension, the Blue Line extension to Lynn, and the Urban Ring struggle for necessary funding, imposing serious impacts on economic growth and urban air quality.  The funding problem remains, indeed it grows, despite the hit on MBTA riders.

But there are solutions.

By definition, few solutions to nagging problems are easy to swallow.  If they were, the problems wouldn’t be nagging ones in the first place.  But the MBTA’s chronic underfunding has moved from nagging problem to regional crisis. I say regional crisis, because no one should doubt the importance of a robust, reliable public transportation system on the quality of life in the nearly 75 percent of the Commonwealth serviced by the MBTA. We cannot improve air quality in the urban core, we cannot improve regional mobility, and we cannot encourage regional economic growth and development, without a reliable, robust public transportation system that gets people where they need to go when they need to go there.

So what are the solutions?

First, the gas tax needs to be increased, and a significant portion of the increase needs to be dedicated to public transportation.  In 2009, the governor and I proposed a 19 cent gas tax increase, indexed to inflation. A substantial portion of that increase was to be dedicated to public transportation.  Such a use of the gas tax is consistent with good public policy, as it may encourage modal shift, which in turn is good for air quality, good for energy security, and good for mobility.  (As an aside, if just two or three cents of a gas tax increase were dedicated to reversing the practice of paying MassDOT highway employees from the capital budget – that is, from borrowed money – it would open up tens of millions of dollars for road and bridge investment.)

Second, in our 2009 legislation, we called for a $2 dollar-a-day parking assessment on vehicles parked at Logan Airport.  That assessment was considered an environmental assessment, reflecting the large impacts on air quality and mobility endured by residents of the communities that are neighbors to the airport. Those funds were to be dedicated exclusively to public transportation, to encourage more people to get to Logan using public transportation.

Third, in 2007 the Transportation Finance Commission (on which I served) made a strong argument for introduction of a pure user fee system to raise transportation revenues.  This so-called “VMT” system (for Vehicle Miles Traveled) would charge motorists a small fee for each mile they drive each day on major state roads and highways. Pilot programs conducted in other states have proven conclusively that VMT can be structured in a manner consistent with legitimate privacy concerns, so that origin and destination data are not retained.

VMT would be fair and transparent, and it would generate funds well in excess of the current gas tax. VMT could be dynamic, charging motorists less while driving off-peak or in rural areas, charging them more while driving on congested urban roads, or during peak hours.  The Transportation Finance Commission concluded that a 5-cent-per-mile VMT on the interstate system alone (excluding state highways) would generate $550 million a year, or $5.5 billion over 10 years. If you add state highways like Routes 3, 20, 9, and 7, the revenues generated are more robust than any we have known in our lifetime. Fifty percent of those VMT-generated funds should be used for public transportation, as a way to improve the system’s service and reliability, encouraging and sustaining modal shift.

Finally, the state needs to find a way to relieve the MBTA of two crushing burdens: the Big Dig debt that the T unfairly carries, and the full cost of the Ride, which has become unsustainably expensive. Some form of cost sharing must take place, or the MBTA will never get out of the funding conundrum it continually finds itself in.  One way to ease this burden might be to reconsider the use and allocation of highway revenues generated from the 2009 sales tax increase.  This is difficult but necessary business.

Meet the Author

As you can see, there are solutions. They may not be easy to accept.  They may be politically unpopular with some. Beguiled and misled by the “reform before revenue” slogan of 2009, we have lost precious time solving this problem.  And once again, a disproportionately higher number of those least able to afford it – the poor and the middle class, students, and the elderly – are being asked to pay more.

The solutions do not require another study – we’ve had more transportation finance studies than you can shake a stick at. They do not need to be vetted with experts – that has happened under the auspices of the bipartisan Transportation Finance Commission.  They simply need to be implemented.

James Aloisi was the state secretary of transportation in 2009 and currently works at AECOM Corp.