House leaders parlay on transpo legislation

Promise multi-pronged solution by end of the year


House Speaker Robert DeLeo met with the House chairs of the ways and means, revenue and transportation committees for about two hours Wednesday morning to sketch out the broad transportation financing package expected to get a vote in the House this fall.

As congestion on the roads and unreliable service on public transportation test the patience of commuters and residents, DeLeo has indicated that he is open to tax hikes or just about any other policy prescription to address the state’s critical transportation needs.

After Wednesday’s meeting in the speaker’s office, Revenue Committee Chair Mark Cusack and Transportation Chair William Straus said the House’s transportation revenue package will touch upon all modes of transit: the MBTA, regional transit authorities, road and bridge funding, and more. The details, including potential approaches to raising revenue to fund transportation projects, have not yet been decided.

“There are different options we’re constantly looking at, we’re not taking anything off the table at this point. Clearly, transportation, it’s in crisis,” Cusack, a Braintree Democrat, said. “It took me over an hour to travel 11 miles this morning and the T would have been no better. We are in a real crisis for transportation. No one’s commute has gotten better unless you retired.”

The eventual transportation revenue package, Cusack said, will be “a multi-pronged solution here, revenue solution, to really improve transportation throughout the Commonwealth.”

Revenue Chairman Mark Cusack, who participated in a top-level meeting with Speaker Robert DeLeo and Transportation Chairman William Straus (left) on transportation financing Wednesday, said it took him an hour in the morning to drive 11 miles into Boston. [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]

Straus said it is important, as lawmakers begin to shape their transportation package, that business groups and others chime in with their thoughts, concerns, and desires.”We had a broad discussion with options out there. We want that broad discussion, but I think part of it now requires that we hear from the public. That includes different segments of the public, the business community — they need to weigh in in the channels that are available as to what they want from the transportation system,” he said. “This is a good time, an important time, for the public to weigh in as well.”

Business groups have increasingly decried the Boston area’s public transportation woes as a hindrance to economic growth. Traffic and congestion on the roads make for long and frustrating commutes by car, and the unpredictable nature of public transportation frequently makes workers late to their jobs.

In April, two dozen business groups banded together to promote a statewide agenda for transportation as the Massachusetts Business Coalition on Transportation, including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce and Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

Some members of that group, including Worcester chamber head and former lieutenant governor Tim Murray, were at the State House on Wednesday to meet with House and Senate leadership about transportation issues.

In February, A Better City released a report detailing an $8.4 billion shortfall in revenues needed to ensure state roads, bridges, and MBTA infrastructure are in a state of good repair over the next 10 years.

The current debate over transportation comes six years after Beacon Hill Democrats passed their last tax plan to pay for transportation, which was supposed to bring in $805 million for the system by fiscal year 2018 and generate $500 million in new revenue each year.

“This bill meets the real and immediate needs of our transportation system while minimizing the impact on our businesses and families,” DeLeo said on June 26, 2013. “I am confident that we now have the resources to fund a healthy transportation system and build our economy.”

Key components of the package were soon stripped. The Legislature later that year repealed its tax on software services, and voters in 2014 rejected a provision that indexed the gas tax to inflation. Straus said Wednesday that the House’s consideration of a new transportation financing bill is not an acknowledgment that the 2013 law was insufficient.

“There’s never a year we’re not in need of discussing transportation. A few years ago we dealt with it as we thought we could. Part of the initiative at that time was rejected by the voters, that’s the automatic indexing of the gas tax, but the transportation needs are still out there,” he said.

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Though the Senate’s timeline for considering transportation financing is unclear — Senate President Karen Spilka has appointed a working group to recommend sweeping tax policy changes for the 2021-2022 session — Straus said Wednesday that the House will take up its own plan before the calendar flips.

“Certainly this year,” he said when asked about the timing for consideration of the bill. “It’s a two-year session, but the speaker has been clear that this is going to be dealt with this year, at least in the House.”