4 ideas for a transportation funding bill

Pair gas tax, TCI; promote toll equity

MULTIPLE IDEAS are on the table for solving our transportation crisis of roadway congestion, underperforming transit, and the looming impacts of climate change. Key to Massachusetts’s future success will be a combination package that addresses the long-standing tensions between rural and urban districts; drivers currently paying highway tolls versus drivers on toll-free highways; and, of course, reform versus  revenue.  Here are four approaches that strike the right balance for overcoming our political challenges to meet the magnitude of this moment.

Pair TCI with a gas tax increase — Massachusetts needs new transportation money now.  We should increase the gas tax and use the new money to immediately address the nearly 500 structurally deficient bridges throughout the state, increase Chapter 90 municipal transportation aid, reduce targeted transit fares, expand regional transit authority service, and improve road pavement conditions.  We cannot do any of these ideas without a gas tax increase this year.

Some have argued we cannot increase the gas tax because a gas tax would work against progress in the Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI. While the two are related, these options can easily be designed to co-exist, especially because TCI won’t start until 2022.  Let’s pair the two concepts so any gas tax increase is slightly reduced over time if TCI revenue hits specific targets.

Current modeling indicates the potential impact of TCI ranges between 5 cents to 17 cents per gallon of gas, but we won’t know for a while on the exact number.  We can increase the gas tax while preparing for any scenario.  Massachusetts just completed a scheduled roll-back of the income tax rate because we met revenue growth targets.  We should follow that model with TCI and the gas tax rate.

Prioritize regional equity through road pricing — If we make the gas tax part of a larger package that includes new roadway tolling – particularly in the eastern part of the state – we can achieve regional equity for drivers.  It will also be the key step to actually solving congestion in Eastern Massachusetts.

It is hard to justify the current approach to highway tolls. Today, and for the last 70 years, the Commonwealth is asking drivers on some highways to pay tolls, while other roads are left without any user charge.  In 2020, during the new age of all-electronic tolling, this can be corrected.  We should create a uniform driving policy on the major highways surrounding Boston and an equitable, consistent approach to tolling.  Let start by applying the same toll rates currently in place on the Turnpike and Tobin Bridge to I-93.  This approach would also be a way to reduce roadway congestion and fund new transportation options that are alternatives to driving.

Fortunately, there is currently a program at the federal government called the Value Pricing Pilot Program that would allow Massachusetts to place tolls on some highways in metropolitan Boston. This federal program is designed to address congestion, driver behavior, transit ridership, and air quality, which are exactly the challenges identified in the Baker administration’s congestion report.  It should be a requirement that Massachusetts apply to this program in 2020.

Bring in road-pricing experts to implement toll equity — Similar to how we created a Fiscal and Management Control Board for the MBTA, we should create an expert panel to implement a toll equity plan. The control board model worked successfully so let’s now create a dedicated board for roadway pricing and congestion.  A new group of experts, appointed by the governor and municipal officials, would have one focus: implement a fair roadway pricing plan in metropolitan Boston within two to three years and then potentially look at state borders tolls. They would conduct feasibility analysis on toll gantry locations, set toll rates, conduct environmental impact reports, and a few other details required by the Value Pricing Pilot Program.

If we do another study or commission report, we are only avoiding action. To end our unfair approach to tolls and address the transportation crisis, we need a new road pricing council board that is empowered to act and get it right.

Flip the script: real revenue and reform — Reform before revenue no longer applies in 2020. Significant new transportation revenue is needed.  Gov. Charlie Baker has put forward some encouraging new revenue ideas through TCI and Uber/Lyft fees, but we need to go much further. In our recent report, we estimate $50 billion of unfunded need over the next 20 years. Take, for example, the regional rail vision that has been endorsed by the control board. This commuter rail system with better frequency, cleaner vehicles, and an electrified network is related to recommendations in the Future of Transportation Commission Report, the congestion report, and the state’s efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2050.  This is potentially a $30 billion project over the next decade, but it is entirely unfunded.

If we only increase revenue from TCI and from Uber/Lyft rides, we will never be able to finance this critical project and others, nor will we be able to fix our bridges and roads, support a reduction in transit fares, and take a socially equitable approach to transportation policy. A comprehensive funding approach that includes the gas tax and toll equity is essential.

Meet the Author
Baker also recommended modern updates on rules related to procurement, public bidding of projects, public private partnerships, and capital delivery management. These all deserve support to accelerate transportation construction projects and improve project delivery at the MBTA. We should first do a real revenue bill, then do the bond bill that includes the governor’s reforms.

The magnitude of the statewide transportation challenge is clear, but so are solutions.  The business community, municipal officials, transportation advocates, environmental organizations, and residents all are ready to support these four steps. We are united in calling for a comprehensive approach that delivers meaningful statewide transportation improvements this year and also makes it possible to realize a 21st century vision of mobility and sustainability in the near future.

Rick Dimino is the president and CEO of A Better City.