Patrick pitches spending, punts funding decision

Patrick pitches spending, punts funding decision

Gov lays out ambitious transportation agenda

The last time Gov. Deval Patrick tried fixing the state’s transportation system, he pitched a 19-cent hike in the gas tax, the Legislature balked, and that was as far as it went. Patrick is now three years, three transportation secretaries, and one bruising round of MBTA cuts removed from the disastrous gas tax episode. Monday, as he unveiled an ambitious 10-year, $13 billion transportation agenda, Patrick showed that he’s far more prepared for the political scrum that follows these types of proposals than he was three years ago.

Patrick’s Monday pitch had been billed as a transportation finance fix. It wasn’t. Instead, the governor and his transportation secretary, Richard Davey, released a lengthy list of projects they’d like to tackle. They ran through a laundry list of long-delayed transportation projects — highway interchanges, bridge repairs, subway car purchases, and rail service from Pittsfield to New York and Boston to Medford, Pittsfield, Springfield, Fall River, and New Bedford — and said they could tackle it all, and more, if they only had another $1 billion in annual revenue. Patrick took what was supposed to be a revenue prescription and turned it into a sales pitch for new transportation spending. And he left the question of where that $1 billion per year should come from for another day.

Hard-nosed politicking surrounded both what Patrick proposed on Monday, and how he plans on sending it to the Legislature. Patrick’s ill-fated gas tax plan led with a bid for $600 million annually in new taxes; the governor’s aides only tried to justify the request after they’d made it. On Monday, Patrick put a spending plan on the table, put a price tag on it, but deferred discussion of how to fund it for a few days — until the advocates with an interest in the plan’s laundry list of projects have had sufficient time to gush about its merits.

Patrick’s transportation plan would add $13 billion in new transportation bond spending to the $12 billion in transportation bonding activity already budgeted for the next decade. It’s a hyper-political document, in the sense that it contains projects designed to appeal to a vast array of constituencies. It adds $1 billion to the Chapter 90 road construction fund. It targets enormous highway projects in Canton, Woburn, and Springfield. It ramps up spending with the state’s regional transit authorities, pours billions into road and bridge maintenance, and targets rail projects on Cape Cod, in the Berkshires, and across the Springfield-to-Worcester belt. It tackles the MBTA’s thorny state-of-good-repair backlog with new investments in subway cars and signal upgrades, appealing to the T’s fix-it-first fiscal hawks. But it also funds ambitious expansion projects like South Coast Rail, the Green Line extension, and the expansion of South Station. And, quietly, by covering the MBTA’s projected operating deficits over the next several years, it ends more than a decade of forward funding at the agency.

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Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Patrick’s plan looks more like something crafted by House or Senate leadership, with an eye toward having to win over scores of reluctant votes: There are enough projects stuffed into the proposal to please transit riders, bicycle advocates, and beleaguered Turnpike commuters alike, and they’re spread around regionally. The contours of the new transportation plan look drawn to head off hand-to-hand combat among regionally- and mode-focused advocates, and replace it with a debate over how to cover the $1 billion price tag on Patrick’s transportation agenda.

The single, round number attached to Patrick’s proposed $13 billion bond also shows the governor has learned from recent efforts at stabilizing the MBTA’s shaky finances. The failed gas tax increase was a collection of little tax hikes aimed at many different users — a few cents per gallon for the T, a couple cents for the regional transit authorities, a few for commuter rail, and the rest for highways. Those types of formulas are highly susceptible to being carved up and redistributed during legislative debate. This latest plan staves that off, and leaves the governor’s office with great leeway in directing transportation spending. However the Legislature cobbles together the new bond revenues, those revenues would form a single payment stream, supporting a single appropriation.