Talk of new transportation revenues premature
Let’s first unleash support from the private sector
THE ROARING MASSACHUSETTS private economy is the envy of the nation. For a second consecutive year, it has helped create a substantial state budget surplus—even while the rate of state spending continues to advance. But CNBC recently lowered Massachusetts’ ranking in its annual Top States for Business from No. 8 to No. 14, with the infrastructure component weighing down the overall ranking at No. 47.
Now is the time to harness our economic momentum by aiming at solutions to real problems in key areas like transportation that protect—not harm—the climate for investment and job growth and improve our quality of life.
So what’s the goal and why do we care? The goal is to deliver critical transportation solutions sooner and more efficiently by collaboratively managing the underlying causes of congestion; mitigating the disruptive effects of constructing improvements; and re-imagining the way the Commonwealth governs, builds, operates, and funds transportation projects, systems, and services.
We care because several of the policy choices receiving most of the attention may reverse our strong economic momentum in the direction of the economic distress faced by some of our peer states. Do we have a revenue shortage that requires new tax sources to properly address transportation challenges? Maybe. But we won’t know if and how much until we first redesign antiquated models of providing solutions—especially with respect to mass transit and our roads, bridges, and highways.
First, a lack of revenue is not the Commonwealth’s most pressing challenge. Therefore, discussion of billions of dollars in new taxes should not be the primary and immediate focus of the transportation debate. With the Legislature’s support, the Baker administration has provided billions in funding for transportation over the past five years and is moving ahead with fully funded plans to invest $20 billion in the MBTA and state roads and bridges over the next five. Those who claim more money is needed as a starting point ignore the fact that the current system is simply not equipped to effectively and efficiently spend the resources already at its disposal.
Second, Massachusetts transportation officials already face steep obstacles managing complex projects in a hyper-competitive environment where necessary talent is expensive and hard to find. This is the most critical impediment to delivering speedier short and long-term transportation project planning and execution. Asking them to do so with workplace rules that keep one hand behind their back will leave us facing the same problems in the future. Instead, we should provide for expanded project management capacity and maximize their flexibility in procuring necessary services and support, including options already utilized effectively at other critically important state agencies, including the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority.
Third, optimizing the use of public-private partnerships extends financial resources. However, unlike in other states, existing statutes block public transportation agencies from engaging the experts to gain sufficient project delivery capacity and from partnering with private developers to harness hundreds of millions of dollars of voluntary private investment and funding for transportation infrastructure which will be owned by the public.
Fourth, engaging employer cooperation in altering employee commutes is an essential element of managing commuter congestion, on both an ongoing basis and around major infrastructure improvement projects that are particularly disruptive for a time by their very nature. Less than 5 percent of Massachusetts workers telecommute. Expanded use of telecommuting policies and a wide range of employee incentives can be enhanced significantly. In combination with the efficiencies outlined above, employers stand ready to significantly escalate the coordination and expanse of their own activities to better manage the congestion caused by employee commutes.We look forward to advancing solutions that respect the balance between adequate public investments to meet the demands of all citizens of the Commonwealth, with nurturing conditions to support a strong private sector that ultimately generates most of the resources needed for those public investments.
Christopher Anderson is the president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.