Rep. Straus’s idea is a really bad one

Don’t rob Peter (Massport) to pay Paul (Metropolitan Highway System)

AUGUST.  That lazy, hazy month without an official vacation day because, well, everyone is either on vacation or slowing down because everyone else is on vacation.  Like that bewitching period between Thanksgiving and New Year, when everyone is preoccupied with keeping or avoiding the holidays, August is a sort of Bermuda Triangle of a month, a time when time itself seems to stand still, and then vanish. If a tree falls in an August forest, does it make a sound?

Truth be told, I was reluctant to write this in August for fear no one would notice, but a sudden sense of urgency overcame my misgivings, the urgency that comes whenever I see someone trying to float a lead balloon.  August is a remarkably good time to float bad ideas, because few people are paying attention, so it’s important for those of us who are paying attention to be vigilant lest the bad ideas take root.

The Globe’s Jon Chesto helped a legislative leader – Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee – float this month’s whopper of a bad idea: siphoning off a portion of Massport parking revenue to help subsidize the cost of the Metropolitan Highway System. The Metropolitan Highway System is basically the interstate highway, tunnel, and bridge system that exists in the Greater Boston urban core.  In the history of bad ideas, this one ranks high.  Let me explain why.

I know something about the Metropolitan Highway System because I wrote the law that created it back in the 1990s.  The system was a conceptually simple and elegant creation: create a super highway and tunnel system that was largely self supporting on the strength of toll revenues, separate it from the turnpike west of Route 128, thus creating some measure of regional equity in the distribution of the funding burden.  The revenue producing elements of the system – the turnpike extension (everything east of Route 128), the harbor tunnels, and the Tobin Bridge – would largely be able to support the cost of operating and maintaining the system.  The largely unspoken reality of the Central Artery/Tunnel project, which was forecast at the very beginning in a report issued by Lazard Freres, was the high cost of running its various components.  That is true for a number of reasons, but primarily because tunnels are unusually expensive to operate and maintain (think ventilation, lighting, and other systems that are unique to tunnel facilities).

The fly in the ointment back in the 1990s was the Tobin Bridge – the one component owned by Massport, and one of its historically stable and significant profit centers.  In Massport’s early years, it was bridge toll revenues that enabled the authority to issue the bonds that supported the massive construction of what we know today as Logan International Airport.  Enacting the Metropolitan Highway System legislation was relatively smooth sailing except for Massport’s strong opposition to relinquishing the bridge.  As then-Massport CEO Steve Tocco said at the time, “Keep your hands off my bridge.”  The bill was enacted into law without the bridge, and for a time everything worked well, but year after year of heavy use and abuse and no net new revenue leads to where we apparently are today.

The Tobin Bridge eventually found its way into the Metropolitan Highway System.  As secretary of transportation, I shepherded through to enactment a transportation reform bill that, among other things, abolished the Turnpike Authority and consolidated operations and maintenance under a new MassDOT.  More important to this article, the 2009 reform legislation imposed two significant financial burdens on Massport. First, it required Massport to give up the Tobin Bridge, which finally became a part of the highway system (along with its toll revenue).  Massport lost the profit center that had been a stable source of revenue since the authority began operations in 1959.  Massport also was required to acquire, operate, and maintain the anemic Worcester Airport, a facility that has kept politicians keeping their fingers crossed for decades, hoping against hope that it someday will prove to be a profitable regional airport.  Alas, impenetrable constraints of topography, chronic bad weather conditions, and poor vehicular access combine to make operating the Worcester Airport very challenging.  So Massport, which already subsidizes the port of Boston, lost one of its stable profit centers (the bridge) and acquired a historically underperforming airport, all in the name of reform.

Now we have one legislator suggesting that the answer to properly funding the Metropolitan Highway System is to be found in Massport’s parking revenues.  Those revenues are indeed robust, but using any portion of them for such a purpose would be very bad public policy. Fundamentally the questions come: do we want a sustainable mobility future, and if so, are we prepared to hold our leaders and decision makers accountable for taking steps to secure that future?  A sustainable mobility future includes many separate but interrelated elements.  Let me try to explain it in a form of shorthand: a sustainable mobility system is one that offers socially and regionally equitable access to a reliable multimodal transportation network that encourages lower carbon mobility through higher use of transit, cycling, and walking.

If you were looking to influence policy today and into the future, you would be encouraging and incentivizing agencies like Massport to do as much as possible to encourage people to get to and from Logan by transit or high occupancy vehicle.  Indeed, Massport has done much in this arena, notably subsidizing a significant portion of the costs of the Silver Line service to Logan, and stepping up its Logan Express service.  More could be done, but that won’t happen if Massport revenues are forcibly diverted to supporting the Metropolitan Highway System.  From a transportation perspective, that would be the least sustainable use of Massport funds. (Readers will know that I have long called for a carbon impact fee on parking at Logan Airport, and using those revenues to support improving transit connections to and from the Airport.  That would be a step toward a more sustainable transportation future.)

The worst sin, of course, is returning to the same old playbook of finding a gimmick that masks the transportation revenue shortfalls that exist because our leaders – and many of our fellow citizens – refuse to honestly acknowledge the scope of the problem or the appropriate means to solve it.  For a long time, governors masked the problem of inadequate highway funding by shifting operation costs to the capital side of the house.  This meant that money, typically bond (borrowed) funds that should have been used for capital projects – actually building stuff – was instead used to pay salaries.  The gimmick has since been discredited, but it enabled governors to avoid confronting the need to raise the gas tax or take other steps that were necessary to raise the revenue necessary to operate and maintain our transportation system.  When I was transportation secretary and tried to raise the gas tax by 19 cents, I faced a tsunami of opposition, much of it, predictably, from anti-taxers and special interests, but also from many citizens who were weaned on the “we can have it all and not raise any tax or fee to get it” approach to governing that took hold in the post-Dukakis era.

The consequence is startling: for nearly 30 years, Massachusetts has raised its gas tax only once, and that was by a paltry 3 cents in 2013.  Worse still, voters in 2014 rejected a provision that would have tied the gas tax to inflation, thus diminishing its buying power over time.  So legislators and voters made a collective decision to not do the necessary thing, and now, rather than candidly recognizing the persistent and predictable consequences of legislative and voter inaction, a lawmaker tries to mask the problem by asking an authority whose principal mission is providing safe aviation services to pony up money that ought to be coming from the users of the system.

Meet the Author

It’s August, that middling month when everyone’s away and bad ideas can be floated without fear that anyone will actually be paying attention.  I’m writing to make sure you pay attention to this one, which would be yet another setback to our long, persistent, and worthwhile journey to a more sustainable mobility future.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the board of TransitMatters.