Anderson: No revenue shortage for transportation

For the Massachusetts High Technology Council, blocking a transportation revenue package is a two-step process.

The first step, which proved successful last week, was convincing House leaders to put off any action on a revenue package until next year. Chris Anderson, president of the council, argued on the CommonWealth Codcast that delaying action at least until January will give lawmakers more time to better understand the state’s revenue and political picture.

Specifically, Anderson said, the extra time will give the Legislature a chance to pass Gov. Charlie Baker’s $18 billion transportation bond bill and to determine whether the transportation climate initiative, a multistate effort to place a charge on the carbon contained in automobile fuels, is likely to become a reality any time soon. Anderson also said a delay gives lawmakers a better chance to assess the political fallout of raising the gas tax.

“That is the message that’s causing the House to think about the timing of when they take up what otherwise looks like a rush to judgment on a gas tax bill,” said Anderson, prior to the House’s announcement.

But Anderson’s call for putting off action is not the High Tech Council’s end game. Saying the Massachusetts economy is strong and state revenues are surging – up $2 billion this fiscal year and up 60 percent over the last 10 years – Anderson sees little need for any transportation revenue package at all.

“The question is, do we have a shortage of revenue or do we have some other impediment that’s getting in the way of efficient delivery of real solutions?” Anderson said. “We believe we don’t have a revenue problem, given the stats that I just cited.”

Anderson focused most of his ire on a gas tax increase, but he is also opposed to other revenue measures on the table, including increased tolling and higher fees on rideshares. “I don’t think we have a revenue challenge. I’m not sure why certain advocates are pushing revenue solutions,” he said.

And Anderson makes clear that hiking the cost of driving to discourage people from driving is a nonstarter.  “If the argument or logic is now shifting, from we need more money to create more solutions, to we want to create a higher cost to change people’s behavior, I think that’s going to run into a buzz saw,” he said.

Anderson’s other major critique of the pro-tax forces is that they call for all sorts of tax and fee increases without any specific plan on how to spend the new money. “Let’s not keep adding taxes for the sake of appeasing those who say we need more tax revenue and tricking the people behind the wheel into thinking that that extra gas tax is going to shorten their commute. Not by a long shot,” he said.

Yet Anderson has no problem with the transportation climate initiative, which he describes as a “wholesale tax on gas.” He says the transportation climate initiative is preferable to a straight gas tax increase because the initiative is an attempt to coordinate action among all thye northeastern states and the money is targeted at reducing carbon emissions.

“When any advocate of a new tax is asked, what are you going to use the money for, there’s a million different answers,” he said. “With the multistate tax, there’s one answer. We support that. With all these other issues, there’s no real plan.”

Still, the transportation climate initiative is not much of a plan, either. Baker has pledged that half of the money from the initiative will go to public transit and the MBTA, but he hasn’t said anything about what the money would be used for and he hasn’t said anything about where the rest of the money would go.

Anderson agreed many questions remain about the transportation climate initiative, which is why it will be some time before the details of how it will work will be known. The transportation climate initiative is not expected to be running before 2022, and many believe it could take much longer.

Overall, the bottom line for Anderson is steady, incremental improvements on transportation and the MBTA – without raising taxes. “The risk here is that overshooting, overtaxing without a plan to support it helps create conditions that move Massachusetts closer to Connecticut or New Jersey-like environments that become more costly to do business in with very little improvement to show for it,” he said. “We’re trying to prevent Massachusetts from becoming Connecticut.”



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