House unveils $600m transportation revenue bill

Legislation calls for hikes in gas tax, ride-hailing fees, corporations

DRIVERS, BUSINESS, SOME RIDE-HAILING CUSTOMERS and car rental companies will all pay more to improve the state’s ailing transportation system under a bill Massachusetts House leaders released Wednesday.

The long-awaited transportation revenue bill is expected to raise an additional $522 million to $612 million annually. The money will go toward a range of transit needs, including the MBTA, regional transit authorities and rural projects.

“When it comes to our transportation system…Revenue can’t wait any longer,” said House Speaker Robert DeLeo at a briefing unveiling the legislation. “This plan, I believe, represents an infusion of critical funds to address the crisis at the T and regional equity issues compounded by congestion.”

The biggest single chunk of money — $150 million to $175 million – would be raised by a 5-cent increase in the state gas tax, bringing the levy to 29 cents a gallon. There would be a 9-cent increase on diesel fuel, raising another $32 million.

Rep. William Straus, the Transportation Committee co-chair, said even with that increase, Massachusetts would still have a lower gas tax rate than any state along its borders other than New Hampshire.

Another $130 million to $145 million would be raised through increased fees on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Today, there is a 20-cent fee imposed per ride, and that fee would remain the same for shared rides like Uber pool. But single rides would see a $1 fee hike, to $1.20. The fee for luxury rides would increase to $2.20. A new 50-cent fee would also be collected from ride-hailing drivers from out of state who pick up passengers in Massachusetts.

The bill would also eliminate a sales tax exemption for rental cars. Today, a rental car company does not pay sales tax when it buys its fleet.

The industry says this is similar to any business where the purchase of wholesale goods – here, cars – is not subject to the sales tax. But House Majority Leader Ron Mariano called it a “huge loophole” and a “glaring kiss to the industry as a whole.” Eliminating the exemption could bring in $110 million.

Finally, the bill would increase the minimum tax corporations must pay, based on the size of the company. Today, the minimum corporate tax – the lowest amount corporations can pay if they reduce their tax burden through exemptions and deductions – is $456, an amount that has not been adjusted since 1989. According to the Department of Revenue, there were 403 corporations with over $1 billion in Massachusetts sales in 2016 that paid $456 in state taxes.

The bill would raise between $100 million and $150 million annually by creating a tiered system, where the minimum tax varies based on a company’s Massachusetts sales. There would be no change for businesses with annual sales of less than $1 million. But businesses making more than $1 billion in sales would have to pay a minimum annual tax of $150,000.

House Revenue Committee chair Mark Cusack said it is unfair that a company with $100,000 in sales is paying the same tax as a company selling $1 billion. “How do you make this fair and make sure we’re protecting the little guy?” Cusack asked.

How the money is spent will be up to the Legislature through its annual budget process, although the bill does provide some guidance.

The bill envisions making a $160 million transfer to the MBTA annually, while creating a new $27 million dedicated fund for the MBTA from the fees on ride-hailing companies. It would transfer $15 million to regional transit authorities while creating a new $27 million dedicated funding stream for RTAs, also from ride-hailing fees. It would create a new $10 million fund for transit assistance to rural authorities.

Lawmakers already fund the MBTA and RTAs through the annual budget process, and House leaders did not preclude the possibility that the new money would supplant the money that is already being spent, freeing up that money to be used elsewhere. They said money would also go into the state’s transportation fund, where it could be used as collateral against borrowing for more capital projects. “The new revenue doesn’t all go into pay as you go operations,” Straus said.

House leaders insisted that the revenues raised will benefit the entire state, both for reasons of regional equity and, as Mariano acknowledged, as a condition for getting the bill passed. “This is a tax increase in an election year, and everyone is looking to have an impact on their district,” Mariano said.

The House plans to vote next week on both the revenue bill and a $14.5 billion transportation bond bill. That bond bill would authorize borrowing for a wide range of road, bridge, and public transit projects. These include the MBTA Green Line extension, the Allston multimodal project, South Coast Rail improvements, and other rail and transit system modernization and improvement efforts.

The bill will be smaller than the $18 billion bond bill that Gov. Charlie Baker had proposed.

Straus said the lower figure is because the governor was counting on getting revenue from the Transportation Climate Initiative – a proposed regional cap-and-trade program that would put a price on gasoline emissions – and on future federal grant money. Straus said neither of those funding sources is certain enough for lawmakers to borrow against it.

Straus said lawmakers could consider authorizing more borrowing down the road if their revenue bill becomes law. “The bond bill is smaller because until the tax package is passed, the revenue isn’t fully there for the $18 billion capital plan,” Straus said.

If the state ultimately joins TCI, which would raise the price of gas, the House bill envisions the first 5 cents of that cost counting as the gas tax increase included in this bill. So if the gas tax increases by 5 cents next year, then TCI goes into effect and, hypothetically, adds 7 cents to the price of gas, consumers would see their price at pump increase by just 2 cents.

The bill also calls for further analysis of East-West Rail between Boston and Springfield. While the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently came out with an East-West Rail study, Western Massachusetts planners have called into question MassDOT’s ridership estimates.

It establishes a commission to study congestion pricing and variable tolling, which are ways to adjust the price of travel to incentivize people to travel at off-peak times or not to drive into congested regions.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The bill would also extend the term of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, which is set to expire this summer, to 2023.

Once the plan is voted on by the House, it will go to the Senate and then Baker. While Baker has proposed raising fees on ride-hailing companies, the Republican governor has generally opposed raising the gas tax.