DeLeo deputy raises expectations on transportation bill

Provincetown state Rep. Peake says 'game-changer' on tap


AS THE HOUSE zeroes in on a transportation financing proposal, one of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s top deputies said Tuesday that the bill could be a “generational game-changer” for transportation across the state.

Rep. Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat and division chair in DeLeo’s leadership team, told a crowd of transportation reform and environmental advocates that the forthcoming bill will parallel, at least in its impact, the seven-year, $1.5 billion public education funding law signed last year in its impact.

“Just as the Student Opportunity Act was a once-in-a-lifetime, generational improvement for our public education, I believe and I am incredibly optimistic that this transportation bill is similarly going to be a generational game-changer in the way we fund, and almost more importantly, the way we provide public transit to the citizens of Massachusetts,” Peake said at a rally.

People from across the state, organized by the coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, packed a hearing room before delivering a “call for action” to lawmakers, urging them to respond to public transit networks that experience frequent disruptions and roadway congestion that’s among the worst in the nation.

While the House appears close to unveiling a bill, its contents remain unknown aside from a likely increase in the state’s 24-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax and a potential hike on ride-hailing service fees.

Speakers at Tuesday’s event said those two components, along with altering tolls to incentivize off-peak travel and other local revenue options, should be considered. Activists are also pressing for more toll roads, saying the current landscape is not equitable since tolls are limited to the turnpike and certain tunnels.

While any revenue ideas the House passes will need agreement from the Senate, Senate President Karen Spilka on Tuesday described new revenue as a “byproduct” that would accompany policy proposals aimed at getting people to drive less, reducing congestion and improving and expanding public transportation.

Noting a revenue bill must begin in the House, Spilka said during an appearance on WGBH, “The bottom line is that the Senate will be focusing on policy measures that will make public transportation more affordable, more reliable, more convenient, frequent and safe. Whatever revenue we do will be driven by policy decisions.”

House leaders have been wrestling with the complexity of assembling a revenue package for months, mindful of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s opposition to raising the gas tax.

“Hopefully the House will do something soon,” Spilka said. “And we’ve been working on it. We’ll see what they do. But yeah, it’s getting late so we need to take action.”

Chris Dempsey, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said the state’s gas tax has increased 14 percent since 1991 while MBTA fares have jumped about 300 percent during that same span.

“We cannot deal with the traffic congestion, with the broken transit system, with the air pollution and greenhouse gases, and we need to fix these problems,” Dempsey told the News Service. “This is about encouraging the House and the Senate to show some bold leadership on this, and we are hopeful and optimistic that there is some action from especially the House coming soon.”

Supporters called for a swath of policy changes and investments to come with whatever new funding would be generated under the reform, particularly aimed at increasing service to get cars off the road and achieving better transit equity.

DeLeo said Monday that a bill release will come “sooner rather than later” and that he intends to give lawmakers about a week to review its contents before voting.

Peake told attendees Tuesday that the House Ways and Means Committee is preparing to unveil a proposal.

“This legislation that I think is about to pop out of the House Ways and Means Committee is our opportunity to make a generational change in the way we fund and the way we provide public transit to each and every one of the close to seven million people in Massachusetts,” she said.

The advocacy push came one day after MBTA officials offered early projections that the agency faces a roughly $90 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1.

That gap comes even with a potential jump in funding. Based on sales tax acceleration and higher transportation network company fees, Gov. Baker’s fiscal year 2021 budget bill would increase state allocation to the MBTA by about $135 million.

However, T officials have targeted significant investments — about $160 million for additional staff recommended in a safety panel report, offices to plan long-term rail and bus transformations, and fare-system reforms — for which their budget-writers warn they currently do not have enough money.

“In terms of our budget, we cannot afford all $160 million,” MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore said at a Monday board meeting. “We have to find $90 million worth of cuts.”

Some at Tuesday’s event criticized lawmakers and the Baker administration for not acting sooner or for casting doubt on the state’s ability to pay for new programs and investments.

LivableStreets Alliance Executive Director Stacy Thompson said Massachusetts needs a “comprehensive funding package” to address the nearly 500 structurally deficient bridges, worst-in-the-nation traffic, and gaps in service that force black riders to spend an average of 64 more hours on the bus every year than white riders.

We can fix this,” she said. “But it won’t come with a tweak there or a nudge there.”

Peake, whose district includes part of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, said she wants to see the legislation boost funding and establish a dedicated funding stream to the 15 RTAs across Massachusetts.

She said House Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Aaron Michlewitz called her on January 1 and asked her to set up a meeting with the Legislature’s RTA Caucus to discuss funding the agencies.

The state allocates one percent of sales tax revenue to the MBTA each year, but RTAs do not have the same reliable source, which Peake said makes it more challenging for them to plan significant service improvements.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
“We have seen many of the regional transit authorities kind of wither on the vine,” Peake told the News Service. “We’re really at a critical juncture with them now. In order for people to want to ride the bus, they have to know: is it coming with frequency, is it affordable, and is it reliable? All of those things — frequency, reliability, affordability — all get down to: how much are we funding them, and is it adequate for them to do the work and job they need to do?”

Michael P. Norton contributed reporting.