House OKs $18b transportation bond bill

Senate leaders target May for vote on revenue package

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

A DAY AFTER VOTING to raise taxes and fees by as much as $600 million per year, the Massachusetts House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a roughly $18 billion bond bill authorizing spending on transportation projects and infrastructure over 10 years.

Before adopting the bill on a 150-1 vote, the House without discussion or debate adopted a $2.4 billion mega-amendment, followed by a second $1.36 billion amendment. Both amendments stemmed from lengthy private talks, with the larger amendment authorizing, among other things, $350 million for improving roadway approaches to the two Cape Cod Canal bridges, which are both in need of either extensive repairs or replacement.

The larger amendment included more than 14 pages, single-spaced, of language earmarking spending to projects all over the state, with those earmarks subject to restrictions on annual state borrowing. The amendment also expanded the size of a rail improvement line item from $80 million to $400 million.

The House bulked up the bill’s bottom line to reflect the projected revenues approved on Wednesday, even though those taxes and fees face an uncertain future in the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker opposes the House’s planned increases in gas and corporate taxes. Bond bills by their very nature are authorizations to borrow money, but the projects listed in the legislation are hardly guaranteed,

“Earmarks and bond bills are monopoly money until the governor says it’s real money,” said Rep. William Pignatelli.

Baker has insisted that the state can afford his own $18 billion bond bill without new taxes, and that the House had left critical needs underfunded with its bill. House leaders reject the governor’s thinking, and say their spending is affordable only due to their passage of new revenues.

“The responsible and financially prudent thing is what the House is doing,” Transportation Committee Co-chairman Rep. William Straus said.

A huge chunk of the underlying bill, $5.6 billion, is for federal highway system projects, with $1.75 billion more carved out for the design, construction and repair of non-federally-aided roadway and bridge projects, and another $1.25 billion for construction, resurfacing, and improvements of bridges and approaches.

A $2.3 billion train system modernization initiative in the bill includes language requiring funds to be spent on implementing improvements tied to the Blue Line extension to Charles/MGH station, and for the design and construction of a commuter rail station at Wonderland Park on the Newburyport and Rockport line in Revere.

Other items in the bill authorize $825 million in spending in connection with expanding commuter rail service to the South Coast, $695 million toward the ongoing Green Line Extension project just north of Boston, and $400 million for South Station commuter rail improvements.

The House bond bill (H 4506) boosts Chapter 90 reimbursements to cities and towns for road repairs to $300 million, exceeding the governor’s bill by $100 million and fulfilling a request that municipal leaders have been making of the Legislature for years.

Straus called Baker’s proposal to expand the use of grant anticipation notes, or borrowing against future federal grants, “dangerous” and one the House has rejected in its bill. The House proposal also excludes Baker’s ask for authorization to borrow against revenues that could come from the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program for emissions that the governor is still negotiating with other states.

“It’s a program that may have its day, we don’t know. But we can’t rely on it,” Straus said.

The House rejected a Rep. Brad Hill amendment calling for a per-employee tax credit for companies that allow workers to telecommute, an idea that Baker touted in his bill.

A Rep. Carolyn Dykema amendment establishing an MBTA office of transit parking and access survived scrutiny in the House and was adopted. The office would be charged with assessing parking capacity and demand near transit station, developing a plan to fund parking opportunities in areas of highest current and projected transit demand, and developing programs, which may include incentives, for private property owners to offer parking near high-demand stations.

The House also adopted a Rep. Shawn Dooley amendment requiring the MBTA to conduct a financial impact study on the feasibility of all platforms on commuter rail stops converting to fully raised platforms with handicap access at every train door. The study would be due by Dec. 31.

A $175 million item in the House bill authorizes spending on planning, design, permitting and engineering in connection with Springfield to Worcester rail service, Boston to Cape Cod service, and Pittsfield to New York City service.

 

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said the upper chamber will take up its version of transportation funding legislation “within the next couple of months,” aiming for a release before the Senate begins its annual budget deliberations in May.

Rodrigues and Revenue Committee Co-chair Sen. Adam Hinds declined to offer specifics on the Senate legislation, although both stressed they agree the state needs to make more investments in transportation.

The Senate proposal, Rodrigues said, is also “probably going to be more policy-focused than tax- or revenue-focused.”

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
“In the long run, I think more revenues are needed for transportation,” Rodrigues said. “The debate is how much more revenue and how to get those revenues. We in the Senate are more focusing on the policy rather than just the dollars, and we will let the policies dictate the revenues rather than let the revenues dictate the policy.”