Do we still need transportation legislation?
2 backers say yes, but there’s a lot of uncertainty
STATE LAWMAKERS ARE starting over from scratch this week with the state budget, and many are wondering whether issues such as education and transportation that seemed so urgent just a month ago are still high priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A big education funding package was signed into law earlier this year but now comes with a big price tag. Can the state still afford it?
The House passed a nearly $600 million transportation funding package in early March, but now our roads and subways are empty, the economy is in the tank, and state tax revenues are expected to fall pretty dramatically. Is transportation still a top priority, or is it something that can wait until later?
Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House cochair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, and Jim Aloisi, a TransitMatters board member and former secretary of transportation, said on the CommonWealth Codcast that they continue to believe a transportation package should be signed into law this year. But they were vague about what the legislation would look like and even what problems it would address.
Straus said he is convinced that society will eventually right itself, and that the transportation issues that concerned policymakers before will reemerge. “I think it still remains important to have a legislative debate and have the issue addressed,” Straus said. “The timeline on the revenue, clearly that’s going to be on a different schedule as so many other budget issues are going to have to be, whether it’s education, health care, or all of the things the public looks for us to address.”
The legislative session expires at the end of June, and the first priority is a budget for the coming fiscal year that adjusts to the new economic reality brought about by the COVID-19 epidemic. Analysts say revenue forecasts for next year may need to be scaled back by as much as $2 billion.
Straus said the legislative session could be extended beyond June 30, giving the Legislature time to address many of the issues on its plate.
Aloisi said the big challenge is figuring out what the world will look like as we move beyond COVID-19. “Whatever the normal is that we’re going to return to, I believe it will be a new normal,” he said. “And then the question is what that new normal is going to look like and what are the implications for the transportation sector.”
Aloisi said he assumes some people will continue to have concerns about taking public transportation as society transitions from its current pandemic-transfixed state to whatever comes afterward. “Let’s be honest, the best form of mobility social distancing is single-occupancy driving,” he said. “If too many people accept that as true, that’s disastrous for the metropolitan region.”
Aloisi said policymakers need to start thinking of ways to ease fears about public transit. With buses, he said, new HVAC systems could be installed to circulate air better, rear boarding could be institutionalized, and shields for drivers could be installed. He said bus service could also be improved by using the current downtime to expand the use of dedicated bus lanes.He also noted that the price of gas is now so low that raising the gas tax would hardly be noticed. “I wouldn’t be abandoning these ideas,” he said.
“This still is a legislative session that cries out for transportation legislation,” he said.