Do we still need transportation legislation?

State lawmakers are starting over from scratch this week with the state budget, and many are wondering whether issues such as education and transportation that seemed so urgent just a month ago are still high priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A big education funding package was signed into law earlier this year but now comes with a big price tag. Can the state still afford it?

The House passed a nearly $600 million transportation funding package in early March, but now our roads and subways are empty, the economy is in the tank, and state tax revenues are expected to fall pretty dramatically. Is transportation still a top priority, or is it something that can wait until later?

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House cochair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and Jim Aloisi, a TransitMatters board member and former secretary of transportation, said on the CommonWealth Codcast that they continue to believe a transportation package should be signed into law this year. But they were vague about what the legislation would look like and even what problems it would address.

The bill the House passed on March 4 featured close to $600 million in new revenue from higher taxes on gasoline and corporations, higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides, and the extension of the sales tax to purchases of new vehicles by rental car companies. The new money was designed to support transportation infrastructure that was struggling amid intense congestion.

Straus said he is convinced that society will eventually right itself, and that the transportation issues that concerned policymakers before will reemerge. “I think it still remains important to have a legislative debate and have the issue addressed,” Straus said. “The timeline on the revenue, clearly that’s going to be on a different schedule as so many other budget issues are going to have to be, whether it’s education, health care, or all of the things the public looks for us to address.”

The legislative session expires at the end of June, and the first priority is a budget for the coming fiscal year that adjusts to the new economic reality brought about by the COVID-19 epidemic. Analysts say revenue forecasts for next year may need to be scaled back by as much as $2 billion.

Straus said the legislative session could be extended beyond June 30, giving the Legislature time to address many of the issues on its plate.

Aloisi said the big challenge is figuring out what the world will look like as we move beyond COVID-19. “Whatever the normal is that we’re going to return to, I believe it will be a new normal,” he said. “And then the question is what that new normal is going to look like and what are the implications for the transportation sector.”

Aloisi said he assumes some people will continue to have concerns about taking public transportation as society transitions from its current pandemic-transfixed state to whatever comes afterward. “Let’s be honest, the best form of mobility social distancing is single-occupancy driving,” he said. “If too many people accept that as true, that’s disastrous for the metropolitan region.”

Aloisi said policymakers need to start thinking of ways to ease fears about public transit. With buses, he said, new HVAC systems could be installed to circulate air better, rear boarding could be institutionalized, and shields for drivers could be installed. He said bus service could also be improved by using the current downtime to expand the use of dedicated bus lanes.

He also noted that the price of gas is now so low that raising the gas tax would hardly be noticed. “I wouldn’t be abandoning these ideas,” he said.

Straus said transportation legislation could be designed so that revenue initiatives only begin when certain targets are triggered. The possible targets could include employment levels, economic growth, or tax revenues. Straus acknowledged Aloisi’s point about gas prices, but said his colleagues in the Legislature wouldn’t necessarily feel the same way. Still, he feels the Legislature should act.

“This still is a legislative session that cries out for transportation legislation,” he said.

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker didn’t wear a face mask at his Sunday press conference, but he says the new CDC guidance recommending the use of face masks is appropriate. (CommonWealth) We should all be wearing masks, says Sen. William Brownsberger. (CommonWealth)

Howie Carr rips Baker over the deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which was run by a politically connected appointee of the governor, another example, the Herald columnist says, of Baker’s patronage hiring leading to tragedy.

Carlene Pavlos, Sandro Galea, and Cheryl Bartlett say the state’s COVID-19 response leaves too many people behind. (CommonWealth)

ICYMI: The state launches a new 1,000-person organization to track and trace the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus. (CommonWealth)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Mayor Marrty Walsh calls for everyone to wear face coverings when they go outside and abide by a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Interestingly. Boston seems to be faring reasonably well so far during the pandemic. (CommonWealth)

Mayor Linda Tyer tries to rally Pittsfield to “crush the curve,” even as the number of deaths in Berkshire County continues to rise. (CommonWealth)

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development will give almost $250,000 to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for COVID-19 relief. (Cape Cod Times) 

The ACLU is raising privacy concerns about a Department of Public Health order that requires local health boards to give the addresses of people with coronavirus to the local police and fire departments. (Eagle-Tribune)

Gloucester residents are asking their mayor to close the bridges to non-residents to discourage outside visitors to Gloucester and Rockport. Rockport already closed its beaches to nonresidents. (Gloucester Daily News) Meanwhile, the police shut down three popular pizza and ice cream shops near Salisbury beach because the nice weather brought too many people out to abide by social distancing guidelines. (Eagle-Tribune)

Healthy residents of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where there was an outbreak of COVID-19, were moved to Holyoke Medical Center to keep them safe — but then one of those veterans contracted the virus. (MassLive)

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi is opening a recovery home for first responders infected with COVID-19. (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

From the Oval Office to the CDC, the response to the coronavirus was marked by denial and dysfunction that cost the country weeks of time before taking the threat seriously, according to this heavily reported account from the Washington Post.

President Trump says he won’t wear a mask, despite new federal guidelines encouraging people to do so. (AP)

Public health officials say the official death count from COVID-19 is almost certainly lower than the actual number because people have died of respiratory disease without a lab test confirming coronavirus infection. (Washington Post)

The response to the pandemic is blurring usual left-right lines in politics. (New York Times)

The Queen of England addresses the nation on the coronavirus.(The Guardian)

LIVING WITH CORONAVIRUS

A Berkshire Eagle editorial tells locals to tamp down the criticism of people from New York returning to their second homes. The paper says full-time and part-time residents are in this together.

Interest in home birth is spiking during the coronavirus outbreak, worrying some doctors. (WGBH) 

As the world tries to contain the new coronavirus, historians are urging people to keep a journal. (Cape Cod Times)

Snowbirds from Massachachusetts are stuck in Florida. (Telegram & Gazette)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The New England fishing industry is being decimated by the pandemic. (Boston Globe)

Animal adoptions are mostly on hold as many South Shore shelters have emptied their kennels to increase social distancing but many still need foster homes for animals. (Patriot Ledger) 

EDUCATION

At least 10 states have said schools will stay closed for the remainder of the academic year, but officials in Massachusetts, where the closure is now in effect through May 4, are holding off any such announcement. (Boston Globe)

A day in the life of a Boston 6th grade student shows flagging attention and reveals the challenges of keeping learning going online. (Boston Globe)

School nurses remain busy, answering questions about COVID-19 and becoming contact tracers. (Gloucester Daily News)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Why some people in low-risk categories get very ill from coronavirus remains a mystery at this point. (Boston Globe)

A Massachusetts company is beginning to offer testing today to hospitals for coronavirus antibodies. (Boston Herald)

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton blasts Steward Health Care for converting Morton Hospital to exclusive COVID-19 care. (Taunton Gazette)

Mental health patients struggle to afford care when they need it most. (DigBoston) 

Over 11,000 patients have seen their Southcoast Health physicians in the last two weeks using telemedicine services. (Standard-Times) 

The state gets 100 ventilators – out of 1,400 it requested. (State House News Service)

ARTS/CULTURE

The Museum Of Fine Arts furloughs staff, extends closure until late June (WGBH) 

Jacob’s Pillow cancels its summer season. (Berkshire Eagle)

The Bay State Banner walks through four centuries of history on Roxbury’s Walnut Avenue.

MARIJUANA

With recreational marijuana stores deemed non-essential, there’s suddenly a lot of interest in medical marijuana, which is essential. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Supreme Judicial Court ordered the release of most defendants awaiting trials. (CommonWealth)

All Massachusetts prisons are on lockdown after a third inmate’s death. (WBUR)

Vendors outside of the Massachusetts Probation Service are still conducting thousands of probation and pretrial drug tests, even though the trial court system has suspended in-person testing at MPS. (DigBoston) 

MEDIA

Newspapers are laying off staff just when the public needs them the most. (AP) The San Francisco Examiner cuts hours and pay of all staff by 40 percent. (KQED)

PASSINGS

Kamari Williams, Springfield high school basketball coach and son of state Rep. Bud Williams, dies at 36. (MassLive)