Baker increasingly isolated on transportation taxes

Gov. Charlie Baker finds himself increasingly isolated on Beacon Hill with his opposition to new revenues for transportation.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka are both open to raising additional revenues for transportation and the two chairs of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, in an interview on the CommonWealth Codcast, said new money is desperately needed.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett said his first priority this session is developing a revenue package with money dedicated for transportation along with a list of spending priorities for the future. He said lawmakers don’t like to increase taxes, so the revenue option chosen will be “the one people hate the least.”

“For me,” he said, “it’s hard to see the kind of revenue in the kinds of numbers we’re talking – hundreds of millions of dollars – that isn’t built at least as a core component of a gas tax change.” He said raising the gas tax is efficient and relatively straightforward, with each penny increase in the tax raising $35 million a year.

Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop offered up an almost direct response to the governor, who said last week that “I don’t believe that raising taxes is the answer to this problem at this point in time. I think the answer is to pursue the strategies that we’ve proposed, which as I said is the largest investment the Commonwealth has made in any five-year period outside of the Big Dig.”

“I think money is the answer,” said Boncore, who called the 3 cent increase in the gas tax approved in 2013 insufficient. The Legislature in 2013 also indexed the gas tax, allowing it to rise with inflation, but that part of the law was repealed as part of a referendum campaign backed by Baker.

Boncore said the state needed to be bolder in 2013. “We’re seeing a system now that’s failing because of a lack of investment back then. So I think it’s crucial and incumbent on us to make the investment now,” he said.

The senator also said the Legislature cannot go with just the most palatable revenue option. “I hope there’s more than one answer here,” he said.  “We need a multipronged approach.”

Boncore said everything is on the table, including new taxes, user fees, new tolls, and congestion tolling.  “Our roads are a public use in the Commonwealth. They’re well underpriced, creating a shortage in them. And simple economics says when there’s a shortage of a good we run out of it and that’s clearly what’s happened. We’ve run out of road,” he said. “By pricing our roads accordingly we can use our roads more efficiently.”

The governor has said additional revenue isn’t needed for the MBTA because the transit authority will have a hard time spending the $8 billion in capital funds he has set aside. Straus doesn’t buy that argument. “If that’s a way of saying I need more staff resources, tell us that,” the representative said.

Straus noted the Baker administration has disclosed in government filings that state spending on roads and bridges is not sufficient to keep them in a state of good repair. If that’s the case, he said, the Baker administration by its own admission needs to spend more.

The governor is even getting pushback from his own appointees to the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board. The control board recently approved a fare increase that will take effect July 1, and two of the five members called on the Legislature to increase the cost of other modes of travel (by raising the gas tax, imposing new tolls, or assessing higher fees on ride-hailing apps) to generate additional revenue and incentivize people to use the T. The full board is now trying to craft a joint policy statement on the need for additional money.

“The transportation system in this Commonwealth is in a pretty bad state of disrepair,” Boncore said.

“Probably the best you can say is the system functions, but clearly it doesn’t function well,” said Straus, who pointed out that his personal commute to Beacon Hill from Mattapoisett has increased from 75 minutes in the 1990s to more than two hours today. “It’s nearly doubled and some days it is doubled. I see that and everyone out there who comes into the city for work or recreation, whatever, sees those issues. It’s not just the time. It’s more and more of each day is crowded with the traffic jams coming in and going out.”

Straus said the public is demanding action. “I have been amazed over the last couple of years at how patient and tolerant the public has been about this problem,” he said. “We just have to address it this session.”



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