Baker vows TCI decision by end of year

Gov says underlying assumptions in flux due to COVID

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER said the underlying assumptions about a proposal to assess a price on the carbon contained in automobile fuels are in flux, but he still intends to make a decision on whether to push ahead with the high-profile regional initiative by the end of the year.

At a State House press conference on Monday, Baker said the emission reductions expected from the regional transportation initiative were based on forecasts about traffic and congestion, most of which no longer apply because of COVID-19. Baker said a re-examination of those forecasts is warranted given the current transportation reality.

“If you pursue a price on carbon associated with transportation, what do you get for that price on carbon in a world that looks a lot different now, and potentially will stay a lot different for the next several years, relative to the one we thought we were living in a couple years ago?” he said.

The so-called transportation climate initiative, or TCI, has been a high priority of Baker’s, both as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to raise funds for investments in transit. As envisioned, 12 northeast and mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia would set a cap on transportation emissions within the region – a cap that would decline over time. To sell gas and diesel fuel in the region, wholesale distributors would have to purchase special allowances auctioned off in amounts equal to the size of the cap. Most analysts assume the cost of the special allowances will be incorporated into the price of gasoline at the pump.

The proceeds of the auction sales would be funneled back to the participating states for use in combatting climate change. Baker in the past has said half of the money would go for transit, specifically electric buses and trains. Baker’s push for TCI has weakened support on Beacon Hill for raising taxes to support transit.

The state’s new transportation reality during COVID was the focus of several presentations on Monday before the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board and the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said statewide traffic volumes, which had been slowly rebounding from the start of COVID in March, have trended downward over the past few weeks. She said all of the state’s highway districts are now below 2019 levels.

The Baker administration released a congestion report in August 2019 that said the state was at a tipping point, where small problems such as crashes or bad weather could quickly mushroom into major traffic tie-ups. Staff members on Monday provided an update on their efforts to deal with congestion, but a lot of the urgency is missing now because traffic volumes are way down.

From October 12 to October 18, the staffers said, daily traffic volumes statewide were down 9 to 21 percent depending on the day. They also said vehicle miles traveled on weekends were higher than vehicle miles traveled on weekdays.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Similarly, transit ridership is trending downward. Pollack said the number of subway passengers fell from an average of 140,000 a day in September and October to 120,000 in November. She said bus passenger levels also declined, dropping from 180,000 in September and October to 160,000 in November.

Those declining transit numbers are creating more headaches for the T as it tries to save money during the current fiscal year to offset a projected $584 million deficit looming in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1.  The T is taking a number of steps to close the size of the deficit, including a series of service cuts that would begin taking effect next year.