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.

Regan said the bond bill – if the final version has anywhere between a $14 billion and $18 billion bottom line – is a “significant investment.” He added: “It’s not as if we’re short shrifting the need, but we’re also trying to balance the concerns around the impact of new taxes on businesses and individuals in the environment that we’re in.”

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 the questions of increasing fees on Uber and Lyft rides, Dempsey said yes and Regan said no.

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.”

SHIRA SCHOENBERG


FROM COMMONWEALTH

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has upped her public profile during the pandemic, but it’s hard to say whether she’s gearing up for a run for governor or another run with Gov. Charlie Baker.

Craft brewers and wholesalers strike a long-sought distribution deal.

A class action lawsuit was filed against officials at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, seeking $176 million in damages.

Mail-in ballot applications are on their way to every registered voter in the state.

Opinion: Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards and community development officials Joseph Kriesberg, Richard Giordano, and John Lloyd are pushing for tenant purchase legislation to stave off displacements….Humanities and culture must be part of pandemic healing, according to Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities….Attorney Margaret Monsell says Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia is spreading dangerous misinformation about worker rights amid the COVID-19 crisis…Robbie Goldstein, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 8th district, says pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to exploit the pandemic.


FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

The House releases its own version of a police reform bill, with a different approach than the Senate to the contentious issue of qualified immunity for officers. (State House News Service)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Facing protests, Nathan and Bill’s Restaurant, a Springfield bar, eliminates a dress code that some criticized as racist. (MassLive)

Marijuana cultivation and the repeal of a Community Preservation Act are among many contentious items on the docket for the Norwell town meeting. (Patriot Ledger)

Florence brewery Brew Practitioners is shut down by the state due to COVID-related restrictions, but the owner, who is black, says she complied with state law by serving food in addition to drinks — and questions whether the order was due to her gender or race. (MassLive)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Enforcement of coronavirus-related rules falls largely to local boards of health. (The Salem News)

A new study links crowded housing conditions in Greater Boston’s poorer neighborhoods to spread of the coronavirus. (Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Six months after the coronavirus appeared in America, reports the Washington Post,  the “country’s ineffective response has shocked observers around the planet.” The Post story, which cites the rush to reopen states still being hit hard by the virus as the single biggest mistake, follows a deep dive on Sunday by the New York Times on the Trump administration’s decision in April to hand off most responsibility for the crisis to the states.

President Trump has a testy interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, which includes Wallace telling the president he took the same cognitive assessment Trump recently bragged about acing and “it’s not the hardest test.” (Daily Beast)

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear far apart on new stimulus legislation. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

The Globe says Elizabeth Warren remains in the running to be tapped by Joe Biden for the VP slot on the Democratic ticket.

Secretary of State BIll Galvin is getting mail-in ballot applications out to all registered voters, as required by a recently enacted law, but he’s not happy with voting advocates who claim they had to sue him to push the issue. (Boston Herald)

Sen. Ed Markey touted his efforts to secure waterfront infrastructure and fisheries disaster assistance funding for New Bedford. (Standard-Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Massachusetts now claims the highest unemployment rate in the country — 17.4 percent. (Boston Globe)

Encore Boston Harbor is open – with lots of new precautions – and is looking at what changes it must make to reopen more games in the future. (MassLive)

The end of $600 unemployment benefits will impact millions of households’ abilities to pay bills. (NPR)

Retailers scramble to meet the high demand for kayaks and bicycles as tourists aim to spend time outside but avoid crowds. (Cape Cod Times)

ARTS/CULTURE

The Worcester Public Library considers eliminating late fines, since they can pose a barrier to low-income families using the library. (Telegram & Gazette)

The Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton aims to reopen in August with an exhibition about social distancing. (The Enterprise)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Ashland Select Board asks Attorney General Maura Healey to support the community’s efforts to block the replacement of a 3.7-mile gas transfer line that runs through the town. (MetroWest Daily News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Massachusetts Bail Fund has seen a surge in donations, and it is using the money to help lots of people get out of jail, including some charged with serious violent offenses. (Boston Globe)

Two teenagers were shot and killed inside a Mattapan house on Sunday afternoon, the latest victims in a surge of violence hitting some Boston neighborhoods. (Boston Herald)

MassLive takes a look at how the cities of Boston, Worcester, and Springfield are responding to calls for police reform.

There are renewed calls for an investigation of the fatal shooting by New Bedford police of a black 17-year-old, Malcolm Gracia, in 2002. (Boston Globe) The case was one of several spotlighted in this 2014 CommonWealth story reporting that every completed investigation of the 73 fatal use of force by police in the previous 12 years had cleared the officer.

MEDIA

Media critic Dan Kennedy lauds an opinion piece by Colman Herman in CommonWealth saying the Legislature’s reform of the Public Records Law didn’t work. (Media Nation)