Polito promises transportation commission

Polito promises transportation commission

Focus, and whether revenues will be on table, are unclear

LT. GOV. KARYN POLITO said the administration intends to follow the advice of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and sign an executive order creating a commission to examine the state’s transportation needs and develop a plan to pay for them.

Polito made the announcement at an event Wednesday hosted by the Taxpayers Foundation. Two Baker administration cabinet secretaries also spoke at the event, which was timed to coincide with the release of a report examining state transportation spending over the last decade and uncertainty about the future.

The precise focus of the proposed commission remains a bit of a mystery. Polito said the administration would be reaching out to people in the room for ideas and added that it is unclear whether the commission would delve into the question of whether new taxes or fees are needed. “That’s something that the commission will need to study,” she said.

Gov. Charlie Baker opposes new broad-based taxes. He has also opposed specific taxes to support transportation infrastructure, including the indexing of the state gas tax to inflation. He opposed even experimenting with a fee on vehicle miles traveled.

The Taxpayers Foundation study used as its reference point a major report done by an earlier Transportation Finance Commission in 2007, which concluded the state’s transportation system was in “deep financial trouble because we have not faced up to the reality of how much it costs to preserve the system.” To address the financial problems, the commission called for a series of management reforms and recommended raising the gas tax, indexing the gas tax to inflation, and implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax.

According to the Taxpayers Foundation report, the state failed to approve a sustainable revenue package for transportation yet managed to spend $15.8 billion on fixing roads and bridges, $4.3 billion more than forecast. The MBTA, according to the report, failed to bring expenses in line with revenues and as a result lacked the funds needed to make capital investments in the transit system. The report said the T has made progress more recently in reining in spending.

Still, the report said the state’s transportation system faces an uncertain future because most of its existing revenue sources are at risk. The report also said spending demands are likely to increase because of climate change and technology advancements.

The report said the rise of ride sharing and electric vehicles puts $2.2 billion in existing revenue from the gas tax, the motor vehicles excise tax, and Registry and inspection fees at risk. Two ballot questions are likely to go before voters next year, one that would impose a surtax on income over $1 million and another that would cut the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5 percent.

“I thought today’s highlight in the report that the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation put forward shows that over the past decade, despite over $4 billion more than anticipated spending, it wasn’t spent in areas that were needed in capital infrastructure improvements,” Polito said. “So we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past but we should think short-term how to continue to modernize, update, upgrade, and fix the system — transit, rail, buses, roads, bridges — so that it works for the people who live here, work here, and want to be here.”

During her speech to the group, Polito recounted progress at the T under the Baker administration, and at one point in her remarks said the T had made a mistake by getting into areas beyond its core expertise. She cited as examples cash collection, warehouse services, and “repairing vehicles or buses.”

The remark about repairing vehicles or buses appeared to be a reference to an MBTA plan to privatize the operation of three of nine bus maintenance garages. The union representing T workers at the three garages is fighting the privatization effort and has enlisted a number of leading Democratic politicians in the cause.

Asked after the meeting whether repairing vehicles or buses was beyond the T’s core mission, Polito said she had been talking about improving the warehouse operation so parts would delivered more quickly and efficiently to mechanics.

“The T wasn’t very good about its managed parts and peeling that function off and privatizing that has helped the overall system of repairs and most importantly get the asset back into productive use quicker,” she said.

Polito indicated she was not concerned about the work of T employees. “The public workforce at the T has some very good expertise. Certainly there are skilled employees there who know how to repair the  current infrastructure and they do that well. It’s the system around getting them the parts so they can do their repairs quicker and getting the product back into production.”

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who was standing next to Polito, interjected that the MBTA is studying whether to privatize some bus maintenance operation. “But there is no plan to privatize all of bus maintenance,” she said. “We’re just looking at a handful of the nine garages to see if the market could help us the way the market has been able to help us with the parts.”

Pollack calls T ‘budding success story’

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the Taxpayers Foundation report failed to fully recognize improvements at the MBTA over the last two years, at one point calling the transit agency “a budding success story.”

Pollack ticked off a number of improvements completed and on the way at the T, including dramatically lower expense growth and sharply higher capital investment. Once new Red Line cars enter service, she said, passengers will be able to board trains every three minutes.

“We are already on our way to reinventing ourselves,” she said.

Pollack also said the state’s transportation bureaucracy is changing its mindset about capital spending. Instead of a strict focus on specific projects, she said the state is now setting long-term priorities and then investing in projects that meet those priorities. Given uncertainty about the future, particularly with climate change and technology, Pollack said planners are also gravitating toward projects that have the best odds of meeting the most priorities.

Meet the Author

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.

“This type of decision making is not the way we do it traditionally in Massachusetts or anywhere.”

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