Baker: New taxes not needed to address congestion
Governor's stance puts him at odds with lawmakers, business groups, and public
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
FACING BLAME from Democrats for mounting public frustration with clogged roads and public transit problems, Gov. Charlie Baker touted his administration’s plan to pour more money into transportation over the next five years than “in any five-year period outside of the Big Dig,” but said the state doesn’t need to raise taxes to confront the congestion problems.
The governor’s defense of his administration’s approach to the state’s transportation system woes came after new polling data was released showing that the vast majority of Massachusetts workers experience some level of frustration and anger with their daily commutes.
Sixty-six percent of voters in the MassINC Polling Group survey said action was “urgently needed” to improve the state’s transportation system, and 80 percent said they support the general idea of the state raising new money to spend on roads, bridges, and public transit. Consensus also seems to be building in the Legislature and the business community for that approach, although specifics about which taxes or fees to raise has not been decided.
Baker reiterated his administration’s plan to spend $8 billion in capital funding over the next five years on public transportation, and a “similar amount” on roads and bridges.
“That will be the largest amount spent over any five-year period, certainly in recent memory,” Baker said.
While Democrats on Beacon Hill are largely in control of the state’s revenues and can easily overrule Gov. Baker, the party’s chairman laid the blame for public dissatisfaction with the state’s transportation networks squarely on the Republican governor’s shoulders.
“Republican Charlie Baker still refuses to consider raising new revenue to invest in our public transit system,” Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford said in a statement. “Baker has been promising for four years that he would fix the problems plaguing the commuter rail, subway, and bus systems; however, commuters and residents continue to be frustrated with unreliable, breakdown-riddled service. This poll makes clear the serious consequences if the Governor continues to avoid critical investments – it’s beyond time that Charlie Baker show some real leadership and live up to his promises to improve our public transit systems.”
Baker has downplayed the need for more revenue to improve transportation, but many legislative Democrats support raising taxes to pay for transportation and education.
However, there’s no consensus among party leaders in the House and Senate on which revenues to raise and Democrats last year saw their plans for a $2 billion tax on the wealthy fizzle after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the millionaire’s tax proposal was improperly drafted.
“This poll shows the serious consequences of a public transit system that continues to experience widespread delays, breakdowns, and service interruptions,” he wrote. “Our broken transit system routinely makes residents late for work and other important commitments. The issues with our public transit system also threaten our ability to attract and retain the workers and families who make our communities strong.”
Asked specifically whether it was time to start thinking about congestion pricing – a strategy New York City recently adopted – or raising taxes, Baker reminded that his administration has been studying the traffic problem and the idea of congestion pricing and expects that report “sometime in the next 30 to 60 days.”
He also said that the state must be careful not to make congestion worse by pursuing too many infrastructure projects at once.
“I don’t believe that raising taxes is the answer to this problem at this point in time,” Baker said. “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.”
While 80 percent of 1,200 voters surveyed in the MassINC poll said they support the state raising new money for transportation, they were not asked about any specific tax proposals.
The poll did find at least 80 percent support for off-peak toll discounts and increasing the frequency of commuter rail trains running to and from Boston to every 15 to 30 minutes “throughout the day, at night, and on weekends.”
Support was lower, but there was still a solid majority for Baker’s pursuit of a regional transportation climate initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions and raise money for transportation investment (68 percent), as well as the idea of allowing regional ballot questions to raise taxes for specific regional improvement projects (55 percent).[Massachusetts transportation officials announced this week that they have put together a financing plan to extend commuter rail service to Fall River and New Bedford, a $1 billion initiative that won’t eat into other transportation funding but does divert money away from other state spending priorities.]
Baker said his administration continues to study the feasibility of expanding rail service from Boston to western Massachusetts, including Springfield.