Same old transportation story

Though there were some fresh faces on hand at Wednesday evening’s Our Transportation Future/MOVE Massachusetts forum, like Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem, the most striking feature of any statewide transportation finance convocation these days is that the story lines just don’t change.

Asked about his decision to confront problems at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority before the MBTA, Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen said that he wanted to deal with “one problem child at a time.”

Sen. Steven Baddour, co-chair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, later offered up that the MBTA’s mostly financial issues should have been taken care of first. (That would be before those of its evil MTA twin with its multiple financial-management-structural personality disorders.)

Joining Baddour, Cohen, and Driscoll were U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano; Richard Doyle, Federal Transit Administration Region 1 Administrator; Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council; and Rick Domino, president and CEO of A Better City.

Yet the standing room only audience of transportation activists and policy makers in downtown Boston had heard it all before:

The good? Promoting structural reforms and efficiencies in state transportation agencies.
The bad? Borrowing money to pay for the upkeep of the roads, bridges, mass transit (never mind the new projects).
The ugly? The political will necessary to take serious steps toward generating fresh revenues is nowhere to be to be found.
The stumbling block? That would be getting to a place where the adults can use the T word (that would be taxes) before the larger body politic.

Cohen dismissed the gas tax’s revenue-raising possibilities, noting that vehicle miles traveled, an important indicator of American driving habits, is declining.

Baddour said that he hears plenty about the gas tax from transportation advocates. But in meetings with constituents (i.e. voters), the subject never comes up. The Legislature has to show people that the state is spending money wisely before lawmakers can get support for new taxes, Baddour said.

That oft-repeated statement led to push back from several people during the Q & A, including Francis Callahan Jr. the Massachusetts Building Trades Council president. As Baddour riffed about political will in response to Callahan’s question about new revenues, he boiled over, shouting “You need to exert more leadership.”

Needless to say, Callahan got plenty of “atta-boys” from fellow audience members afterwards.

But pressed for his take on possible new revenue sources, Callahan didn’t have much to add. He agreed that no one has really worked to create a public consensus on improving transportation in the Bay State. Turns out he isn’t advocating for a gas tax either, but prefers exploring open road tolling, a subject that didn’t really come up during the 90- minute session.

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Invoking both Gov.Deval Patrick and President-elect Barack Obama, the real solution to the state’s transportation finance miasma, according to Callahan, is a ‘Yes We Can’ style effort to convert residents from taxpayers concerned about their own pocketbooks into citizens who are “all in this together.”

Keep hope alive.