Transportation pros make tough calls, get cold shoulder

INTRO TEXT columbus day fell during a particularly volatile moment in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Three weeks past his runaway primary win, there were still doubts about Deval Patrick’s electability-specifically, whether he’d be seen as too soft on crime and too vague on how he would pay for his promised new programs. Meanwhile, Republican nominee Kerry Healey, facing poor poll numbers, had gone on the attack and trotted out the tried-and-true argument that only a GOP governor could hold the line against the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.

The issue du jour, as both candidates gathered in Revere for the holiday parade, was a 9-cent increase in the state’s 21-cent-per-gallon gas tax. The idea was reportedly under consideration by the Transportation Finance Commission, a panel of business and transportation experts reviewing the state’s transportation system. Swarms of reporters, trained to the electorate’s sensitivities on taxes, bounced back and forth between Healey and Patrick during the parade, eager to capture the “he said, she said.”

A plan to raise the gas tax by 9 cents was dead on arrival.

The campaigns squabbled about who controlled the commission. But both candidates ruled out increasing the gas tax if elected. The proposal, which analysts said could net $270 million annually, was rendered dead on arrival.

The Columbus Day flap likely had little impact on the campaign; Patrick so thoroughly trounced Healey it’s doubtful even his full-on embrace of the tax hike would have swung the election to the Republican. And commission chairman Stephen Silveira, a Boston lobbyist and former top MBTA official, hopes that the back-and-forth last October will have little policy resonance. “If the election was decided on that, it would be game over,” he says, pointing out that Patrick’s pledge isn’t seen as a major campaign promise. “But there’s no film or ‘read my lips,’ as it were.”

It wouldn’t be the only time the transportation commission—created in 2004 amid escalating concerns about the condition of roads, bridges, and rails —got a cold shoulder for its efforts. By late March of this year, it had identified a funding deficit for transportation network maintenance that could hit $20 billion over the next 20 years.

At a noontime press conference in mid September, the commission made recommendations for closing that gap—highlighted by a call for an 11.5 cent increase in the gas tax. But at that very hour on the other side of the Common, Gov. Patrick was upstaging the panel by announcing his plans for expanding legalized gambling in the state. The commission had taken three years to reach its conclusions, but after a few months pondering casinos, Patrick wanted to make his pitch to the Commonwealth with the greatest hype possible. Thus, the day’s topic became casinos vs. gas taxes.

Chairman Stephen Silveira
hopes that it’s not “game
over” for the commission’s
proposals to raise revenue.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a commission member, says, “I think it was a deliberate decision of the administration, and I think they accomplished it in the short term, to sort of overwhelm or steal the thunder of the Transportation Finance Commission.”

Also doused in the gambling excitement were the transportation commission’s other proposals: among them, reduced police construction details and MBTA employee fringe benefits on the savings side, new revenues from user fees, and steadily escalating MBTA fares.

The report ‘put together all the bad news.’

As casinos and fallout from Patrick’s announcement commanded the agenda, and despite its delivery just six weeks after the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the package stirred fewer prolonged discussions about its utility than the authors had hoped. Unsurprisingly, the pricier ideas elicited concerns that a high-cost state needs no more wallet grabs. And reforms totaling $1.2 billion were targeted at members of powerful public employee unions, which helped quell support for those initiatives.

One longtime state government veteran calls the commission’s report a victim of two delays: one the long neglected, decaying transportation infrastructure, the other the long lead time between major efforts at savings and revenues. “It put together all the bad news and all the old solutions,” he says, agreeing to speak for the record only anonymously.

Commissioners are almost defiant in predicting that their recommendations, sooner or later, will wind up on the books as law. Says Widmer, “In the end, I don’t know if it’s going to be this governor or the next governor, somebody’s going to support a gas tax, because they’re going to discover that there’s no way to make this work, to have the money for the roads and bridges at a bare minimum, without having to raise a tax of some sort.”

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In the short term, the panel’s greatest feat may be drilling home the notion of a $20 billion shortfall. “I think that’s not a small accomplishment,” Widmer says. “I think that reality is out there. And it’s a number that’s going to be impossible for politicians to dodge forever.”

Silveira, who acknowledges that the focus on revenues was unavoidable, sounds a similar note: “The Legislature created this commission, they asked us to ask and answer some tough questions, and we did that, and that information’s not going away. They’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that.”

Jim O’Sullivan is a reporter for State House News Service.