Study raises transportation concerns, punts on solution

Funding shortfall seen as people buy fewer cars, less gas

THE MASSACHUSETTS TAXPAYERS FOUNDATION released a report on Tuesday raising concerns about the state’s ability to maintain and improve its transportation infrastructure, but called for another study of the issues involved rather than more revenues or other steps to address the problem.

The study, portrayed as an update of a 2007 Transportation Finance Commission report, said Massachusetts has spent a lot more than expected on transportation over the last decade but still finds itself short of money to address pressing needs. The report also said the state is likely to face severe funding constraints in the future as people buy fewer cars and consume less gasoline.

The financial analysis is surfacing at a time when the state Senate is suggesting that residents are dissatisfied with the state’s existing transportation system and are willing to pay higher taxes for improvements. The Senate on Tuesday is issuing its MassMoves report, which was paid for by the Barr Foundation and is based on feedback obtained from workshops held around the state and an online poll of residents.

The Taxpayers Foundation, which is backed by businesses, said the state spent nearly $16 billion repairing roads and bridges over the last decade — $4.3 billion more than projected by the Transportation Finance Commission in 2007. The bulk of the additional revenue was obtained by increasing the state bond cap and by borrowing against future federal funding and existing gas tax revenues, the study said.

The report praised current MBTA management for bringing expenses more in line with revenues but said the transit agency’s failure to do so earlier has been costly. The T’s expenses grew twice as fast as revenues for much of the last decade, the report said, requiring the agency to balance its budget with the help of $2.1 billion in state aid and by reducing capital spending and pushing debt obligations into the future.

“The consequences of these actions have been costly and unmistakable,” the report said. “Reduced  capital spending over a prolonged period … has degraded MBTA’s infrastructure, undermining its ability to deliver transit services and extending the time needed to repair the system. Further, the current costs to address the MBTA’s asset needs are in excess of $1 billion annually and rising – a target the MBTA has not met.”

The Taxpayers Foundation warned that climate change is likely to increase the state’s transportation needs even as existing revenue sources “are uncertain and could unravel.” The report said the rise of ride-sharing and electric vehicles could put $2.2 billion in revenues from the gas tax, motor vehicles sales tax, and Registry and inspection fees at risk. It said two ballot questions likely to appear on next year’s ballot could scramble the revenue situation even more. One would raise the tax rate on income above $1 million and the other would cut the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent.

With all this uncertainty, the Taxpayers Foundation concluded an independent review is needed to better define the state’s capital needs and lay out a comprehensive plan to pay for them.

James Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation and a member of the 2007 Transportation Finance Commission, said the Taxpayers Foundation report glosses over the fact that relatively few of the commission’s revenue-raising recommendations were adopted.

The commission recommended an 11.5-cent hike in the gas tax indexed to inflation and a 5-cent vehicle-miles-traveled fee for drivers on Massachusetts interstate roads. Instead, lawmakers passed a 3-cent increase in the gas tax indexed to inflation; the inflationary adjustment was repealed by referendum in the 2014 election. Gov. Charlie Baker endorsed the ballot question repealing gas tax indexation and has opposed vehicle-miles-traveled fees.

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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.

Aloisi also said the Taxpayers Foundation report seemed to cherry-pick items from the Transportation Finance Commission to include in its report. For example, Aloisi noted the Taxpayers Foundation report criticized the MBTA for failing to make capital investments in infrastructure over the last decade. But he said the report neglected to mention that the commission had recommended that the state make it possible for the T to make greater capital investments by relieving the T of its obligation to pay back debt imposed by the Big Dig. The state never followed through on that recommendation.

“We keep getting independent reviews that no one pays attention to,” said Aloisi, who favors more revenues for transportation. “How many more do we need?”