Patrick finally embraces gas tax increase
Gov. Deval Patrick made a very persuasive case for raising the state gasoline tax immediately by 19 cents and having it rise in the future in tandem with the Consumer Price Index. My only question: What took him so long?
Patrick told the crowd gathered for his speech at the State Transportation Building today that he was going to speak more candidly and bluntly than usual. He said the state transportation system was being strangled by Big Dig debt. He described bridges and roads that were crumbling. He said MBTA and commuter rail service was unreliable or inadequate. He claimed Massachusetts residents spend $718 million annually repairing vehicles damaged because of the poor quality of the state's roads.
"The level of neglect is shocking," he said.
But he said far more needs to be done. He called for a sweeping consolidation of transportation agencies under the control of his secretary of transportation, James Aloisi. Aloisi would oversee four divisions: highways, rail and transit, aviation and the port, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. There were few details, but the Massachusetts Port Authority apparently would remain intact but work more closely with the governor's office. The MBTA would remain intact but lose some of its autonomy. The Turnpike Authority would be abolished, as would the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission and the Outdoor Advertising Board. Alioisi said the consolidation effort would eliminate 300 jobs.
Patrick also vowed to bring all of the state's transportation employees on to the state's health plan and align the MBTA's more generous pension benefits with the rest of state government.
Unlike Senate leaders, who said transporation reform needed to precede any push for new revenues, Patrick said revenues and reform were both needed simultaneously. Patrick called revenue and reform "two halves of a complete whole."
He proposed a 19-cent hike in the state gasoline tax, which would raise it from 23.5 cents to 42.5 cents per gallon. Combined with the 18.4-cent federal tax, Massachusetts drivers would pay 61 cents in tax on every gallon of gas they purchase. He also said he would push for new tolls at the state's borders and higher automobile registration fees for vehicles that get poor gas mileage.
Patrick showed his political skills by breaking the 19-cent gas increase down into chunks of political capital that could be used to build political support for the proposal on Beacon Hill.
Roughly 10 cents would go to forestall proposed toll increases on the Turnpike and fare increases at the MBTA, measures that are likely to draw support in Greater Boston and its western and northern suburbs.
Patrick was asked why he isn't proposing taking down all the tolls on the Turnpike. "It's all about choices," he said, pointing to a poster that indicated it would cost $380 million a year, the equivalent of a 15-cent increase in the gasoline tax, to do that.
Patrick said he was telling it like it is. "The days of avoiding the truth and the consequences must end now," he said.
But he neglected to mention his own long road to the truth. Transportation officials have been saying privately and publicly for years that an increase in the gas tax was needed to right the state's wobbling transportation system. (For a good overview, see CommonWealth magazine's take here.) Patrick came out against a gas tax increase in 2006 when he was running for governor. After he was elected, he waffled back and forth, reluctant to be painted as a tax-and-spend liberal. Only now, with a toll increase imminent at the Turnpike Authority and big fare increases looming at the MBTA, is he finally telling it like it is.Asked why it took him so long to embrace a gas tax increase, he replied: "I've only been here two years." He then said reforming the transportation system, including the consolidation of state transportation agencies, is incredibly complicated. He said it has taken a lot of time to review all the options.
"It was worth taking the time, but we are out of time," he said.