T notes: DeLeo open to tax hikes
$10 weekend commuter rail fare is now permanent
OPENING THE DOOR for a near-term debate over transportation and transportation financing on Beacon Hill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said on Tuesday that he is open to tax hikes or just about any other prescription to address the state’s critical needs — but he first wants to know what businesses will support.
Speaking at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, DeLeo said congestion on the roads and unreliable public transportation service are problems that “impact every employee and every business” in Massachusetts. He said he wants the business community to weigh in on what policies it could get behind.
“It’s all on the table,” DeLeo told reporters after his remarks. “Quite frankly, I think we’re at a situation relative to transportation we’re at a critical point. If we’re going to continue to grow our economy here in Massachusetts, transportation has to be one of the major factors that we address.”
DeLeo may be leading the Legislature to revisit a topic that he and lawmakers tried to tackle in 2013, when they added $500 million in new taxes on gas, cigarettes, and software services, but later repealed the so-called tech tax. Former governor Deval Patrick vetoed the bill because he was looking for a more robust tax package, and lawmakers passed the proposal over his objection.
“Some members have already approached me on it, they feel that they could support,” he said. “It’s never an easy issue to take up, but again, I think we’re at a stage where if we’re going to get serious about addressing this issue then everything and anything has to be on the table.”
The speaker also gave voice Tuesday to another proposal for raising money to invest in transportation — hiking the fees charged on rides hired through apps like Uber or Lyft, which can lead to greater congestion. He said the so-called transportation network companies (TNCs) are “part of the issue” and asked Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who led the 2016 push to regulate TNCs, to weigh in.
“I think it’s certainly appropriate now, a couple years later, to re-engage in that conversation and have a look at exactly what the appropriate level of balance related to those fees” is, Michlewitz said. “We definitely did them probably at a lower level earlier on because we were, as I said, really concerned about public safety.”
Sen. Joseph Boncore, who chairs the Transportation Committee, said after DeLeo’s speech Tuesday that there is no “silver bullet” to addressing transportation and said he was pleased DeLeo indicated that a wide range of revenue options could be considered.
Late last month, Senate President Karen Spilka called transportation infrastructure and financing the policy area with the “most exciting and uncertain” future, and said there is agreement that the state must do something to address transportation but there is not yet consensus on what the fix should be or how to get there.
“Right now I plan to focus less on individual policy proposals and more on bringing the right people to the table to get things done,” Spilka said a meeting of the board of A Better City, according to her prepared remarks. “As I’ve said before — I don’t think we can afford to take any idea off the table right now when it comes to transportation — either in terms of fixes, or in terms of how we pay for it.”
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
The Fiscal and Management Control Board made the $10 weekend commuter rail fare permanent on Monday while approving a 5.8 percent average increase in fares.
The $10 fare, which offers unlimited travel on commuter rail on Saturdays and Sundays, is an attempt to boost ridership at a time when most of the train seats are empty. Data so far indicate revenue and ridership are both up.
Research compiled by the T indicates most of those buying the pass are located in commuter rail zones far from Boston – 69 percent of the sales are in zones 6 through 8, with zone 8 (home to Worcester) accounting for 43 percent of sales. Another 23 percent are in zones 3 through 5.
T officials say they intend to explore the idea of creating another, lower-priced pass for zones closer into Boston to spur sales there.
T revenues don’t have a lot of wiggle room
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Council, was one of the few people who testified at the control board’s meeting on Monday in support of the fare increase.Regan ticked off a series of budget items where costs are growing, and the total quickly added up to around $40 million, about $11 million more than what the fare increase will generate. “You’ve already spent the fare increase,” he said.
Brian Shortsleeve, a member of the control board, was also wary of giving back any revenue by either reducing the fare increase or upping spending. He said the T’s paratransit service and its pension commitments are out of control and growing at a rapid rate.