Sharp split on need for new transpo revenues
With 17 percent unemployment, a recession, and a global pandemic, does Massachusetts need to be raising more money right now to fix the state’s ailing transportation system?
“Clearly the Legislature needs to be thoughtful and considerate in a time when so many folks are struggling about raising revenue, but if we’re not making investments in transportation then we’re not going to have that full and vibrant economy recovery we all want,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a transportation advocacy group that has been leading the push for more revenue.
But John Regan, president and CEO of the business group Associated Industries of Massachusetts, disagrees. “With the economy in such a state of flux, with state finances so far in a state of confusion…adding even modest new revenue to the equation right now is not prudent,” Regan said.
On this week’s Codcast, Dempsey and Regan both agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way they saw the state’s transportation needs. But they disagreed on virtually everything else, from whether new transportation revenue is needed to what types of revenues are worth looking at. Their debate mirrors the one happening on Beacon Hill, with a slight twist. On Beacon Hill, the business-friendly House in February passed a $600 million transportation revenue bill and the Senate, which is generally considered more liberal, this month said it would not take it up, due to the pandemic. The Senate passed a $17 billion transportation bond bill, but the House says that is too large without new revenues.
But Dempsey said the bond bill is “essentially a status quo amount” that “says we’re going to spend the same dollars on the same things next year, three years from now, as we did last year or three years ago….Was the system we had in transportation last year or three years ago working for you?”
Use of the transportation system has dropped significantly over the last few months, as the pandemic forced businesses to shutter and many employees who could began working from home. Regan said with work from home policies likely to be part of the mix for quite some time, it makes sense to be conservative on transportation spending right now – and lawmakers can always come back to it in another legislative session.
“Depending on when things start to look and feel more like normal then we can revisit whether or not the investment levels in transportation are appropriate or not in those circumstances,” Regan said.
Regan said burdening individuals and businesses with more taxes is a bad idea at a time when work from home policies “lowered the barriers for exit” from Massachusetts, since employees can work at a Boston job from New Hampshire.
But Dempsey said the pandemic highlighted the need to make improvements like reducing crowding on buses, which essential workers need to take to get to work. And he believes life will eventually return to normal.
“We’re going to cure cancer and maybe cure COVID in Kendall Square because it’s a place where a lot of really smart people get together and try to fix problems,” Dempsey said. He said if telecommuting becomes the norm, Massachusetts will have to rethink a lot of things. “In a world where no one goes to the office, you might as well move to North Carolina for lower housing prices and better weather,” he said.
Despite the recession, Dempsey said his group still supports raising the gas tax, noting that the state’s gas tax is below the national average. Regan said his group opposes a gas tax increase, although AIM does support the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional effort that would impose a price on transportation emissions, effectively raising the cost of gas.
On regional ballot initiatives – where individual communities can vote to raise taxes to pay for a specific project – Regan worried about creating “a hodgepodge of lots of different taxing jurisdictions.” Dempsey touted the initiatives as a way to “empower local leaders and residents to make decisions themselves, not have every dollar go through Beacon Hill or Washington, DC.”
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