After surtax fail, Senator sees regional transpo taxes as “Great plan B”

Would enable local communities to band together


WHEN ONE DOOR to transportation revenue closes, there’s an opportunity to try to open others, according to a Longmeadow Democrat who is making an eleventh hour push for local ballot initiatives to fund buses, highways and bike paths, an option available in most other states.

The Supreme Judicial Court determined last month that a constitutional amendment to levy additional taxes on the highest earners to generate funds for transportation and education was ineligible for the November ballot.

Proponents of the so-called Fair Share Amendment had hoped that measure, if passed, would generate around $2 billion to spend on those two areas.

“There was a lot of hesitancy to engage in revenue items while the Fair Share Amendment discussions pended. Now we have finality on that. We have the feedback from the SJC. This really elevates one of the most specific items we can do right away to get those investments to transportation,” Sen. Eric Lesser told advocates at a Wednesday briefing on his bill (S 1551/H 1640). He said, “We were waiting on making big revenue decisions until that was completed. Now it’s completed. We saw the answer. It wasn’t what I personally would have liked to have seen but this is a great plan B.”

Lesser’s bill would enable local communities to band together and ask their voters to support new regional taxes to pay for local transportation projects.

The legislation is before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which does not have a vote scheduled on it with only three weeks remaining before the end of formal sessions. Legislation has also not moved in the House.

By a 33-7 vote, the Senate tacked on a regional ballot initiative measure to a municipal modernization bill in 2016 but the House did not, and the provision did not make it into the version of the bill that became law.

Marc Draisen, a major backer of the approach who is the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, rallied those gathered in a Senate meeting room to make progress on the legislation this session to put it in a better position next session, which begins in January.

According to the MAPC, the bill would authorize communities to raise sales, property, payroll or other taxes.

Even if the bill becomes law, it takes around three to five years for communities to formulate a regional transportation ballot initiative, according to Draisen, who said that in states that have legalized that type of process those ballot questions have about a 70 percent success rate.

According to Transportation for America, 41 states allow local ballot measures to secure funding for transportation projects. The group points to successful efforts to fund transportation initiatives in Denver, Colorado; Manhattan, Kansas; Volusia County, Florida; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; East Bay, California; Athens-Clarke County, Georgia; Burlington, Vermont; Western Springs, Illinois; Kitsap County, Washington; and Greene County, Ohio.

Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said his advocacy for a regional ballot initiative in Massachusetts dates back to 1987 when he saw its potential for success in San Diego, California.

Massachusetts is one of nine states in the country that does not allow its local governments and citizenry to propose and pass regional ballot initiatives to raise tax money for transportation, according to Kevin Thompson, director of Transportation for America.

Regional ballot initiatives are far from the only idea for raising funds that many mobility advocates say are needed to bulk up transit capacity, improve roads and offer healthier transportation offerings.

While cities and towns impose real estate taxes to fund local services, the state Legislature has reserved for itself the power to tap into large sources of tax revenue from sales, incomes and other sources.

The last big push for transportation revenue occurred in 2013 when lawmakers raised the state gas tax 3 cents while linking future increases to inflation, imposed an additional $1 tax per pack on cigarettes, and attempted to tax part of the software services industry. Lawmakers swiftly repealed the so-called tech tax on certain software services, and voters in 2014 repealed the provision linking future gas tax increases to inflation.

Massachusetts taxpayers finance about half of the MBTA’s $2 billion annual budget, with cities and towns picking up about $170 million of that, and lawmakers regularly pass a so-called Chapter 90 bill funding local road projects, although the $200 million in funding this year falls short of the roughly $700 million that the Massachusetts Municipal Association says cities and towns need to spend annually to keep 30,000 miles of local roadways in good shape.

Dave Williams, who was mayor of Suwanee, Georgia and is now vice president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said that local ballot initiatives have “made a lot of headway” on transportation issues in Georgia, where he said the state hasn’t played much of a role in funding transit.

“Georgia is a very conservative state when it comes to funding anything,” Williams said.