Sneak peak of this year’s transportation debate
The House and Senate chairs of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee engaged in a back-and-forth debate about legislative priorities on transportation this year, with Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop calling for a dramatic paradigm shift and Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett questioning whether that shift has too big of a price tag.
The two lawmakers appeared on The Codcast, where they offered a sneak peal of the legislative deliberations that will likely take place this year as the Transportation Committee sets policy for the coming year. Both officials indicated they thought driving would return quickly to pre-pandemic levels, although it may not follow traditional rush hour patterns. They said transit ridership would probably take longer to bounce back.
The House, led by Straus, passed just before COVID hit last March a major transportation funding bill featuring higher taxes on gasoline, corporations, and rental cars. The Senate did not act on the House’s bill last year, but the two branches did pass a bond bill including some revenue measures, including higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides. Those measures were vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.
This year is starting differently. Boncore has filed legislation he is calling the Transportation New Deal. It resuscitates the measures Baker vetoed along with a 4-cent increase in the gas tax for three years in a row and a host of new policy measures, including free fares on all MBTA and regional transit authority buses, fares adjusted to reflect passenger income levels on other transit modes, and a roadway pricing task force to make recommendations on congestion pricing and toll equity.
Straus said he is all for treating transportation as a public good, but he is worried about the cost of Boncore’s approach, which he pegged at $1 billion. “It’s important to focus on the goals. It’s equally important to focus on how you get there, and that’s probably going to be the kind of legislative discussions we’re going to have. I’m optimistic, although clearly we’re going to have some disagreements in getting there,” he said.
Boncore said making buses free would dramatically improve equity in the transit system because bus riders tend to be people of color and lower-income individuals. He said fare-free buses would also attract more riders, curb traffic, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Straus said the push for free fares has gained momentum over the last few year, but using the gas tax to pay for them means many poor people who drive vehicles will bear much of the burden. “The system has a certain cost and you can’t in the name of equity inequitably visit the costs on only one part of the traveling public and that’s part of the dynamic I see here,” the representative said.
Straus said one option would be to remove fares on certain buses in certain areas rather than systemwide.
Boncore prefers a statewide approach. “Of course, there’s a cost to that, but there’s a cost that for too long our constituents and riders in this CommonWealth have borne, and that’s the cost of doing nothing,” he said. “We need to build out of this pandemic. We need to make our transportation system a more equitable one. We’re going to have to absorb the cost. My understanding is the cost of fare free buses is about $60 million to $90 million. That would make free the buses on the MBTA system and on the RTA system, so I’m concerned about others thinking it could be a billion-dollar cost because I just don’t see it that way.”
Boncore said bold action is needed. “It’s time in public transit and in our transportation system to change the paradigm on how we think about these things. Something has got to change because the product we’re putting out as a Commonwealth is not good enough and the people of this Commonwealth deserve more. What’s the cost associated, I have to ask, with our roads? Those are fare free. No one is paying user fees on our roads.”
Straus pointed out to his Senate colleague that there is an excise tax on the roads – the gas tax. He also said MBTA documents indicate bus revenue totaled $97 million in 2019. He said doing away with bus fares could also trigger the loss of income from the T’s paratransit service, since the fare for paratransit rides is tied to the price of corresponding bus and subway fares.
While the tone of their discussion suggested strong differences, both lawmakers wrapped up the podcast by saying they agree on a lot, starting with many of the initiatives that Baker vetoed in last year’s transportation bond bill. “I’m excited this bill has prompted these conversations,” Boncore said. “It’s generating some buzz, that’s the intent.”