Transportation commission won’t look at revenues, financing
Focus will be on envisioning the future, not paying for it
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S new commission on the future of transportation will try to envision how people will be moving around the region 10 to 20 years from now, but it won’t be looking at how to pay for the infrastructure needed to accomplish that.
Steven Kadish, the chairman of the commission, said the group will not look at specific transportation projects and it will not look at revenues. “We do not want to put the cart before the horse,” he said, suggesting that the long-awaited debate about whether the state needs more transportation revenues will be put off until long after the November election.
Gov. Charlie Baker swore in the commission members on Thursday at the state Transportation Building and charged them with producing a report by December 1 predicting what the future will look like with respect to climate change, modes of travel (think ride-hailing apps, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles), population demographics, land use, and federal policies.
“That’s a big goulash of unknowns and semi-unknowns,” Baker said.
The idea for the commission came from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which released a report in late September suggesting that a third transportation finance commission was needed because existing revenues were uncertain, particularly because of cutbacks in federal spending and the rise of ride-sharing and electric vehicles, both of which have the potential to upend funds coming in from the gas tax, the motor vehicles sales tax, and Registry and inspection fees.
“Current transportation revenues are uncertain and could unravel,” the report said. “In this era of transition, it is time for a new independent review of the state’s transportation financing to redefine capital needs and how best to meet them.”
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito spoke at the Taxpayers Foundation event and announced plans to form the commission. But details were vague, with Polito saying it was unclear whether the commission would delve into whether new taxes or fees are needed. “That’s something the commission will need to study,” she said.
When the commission members were announced on January 23, the press release said their focus would be on ensuring “that transportation planning, forecasting, operations, and investments for the period from 2020 through 2040 can best account for likely demographic, technological, climate, and other changes in future mobility and transportation behaviors, needs, and options.”
Baker administration officials turned aside requests to interview Kadish at that time, so the first real indication of what the new commission would do came on Thursday. In a brief interview after the commission members got acquainted, Kadish defended the lack of focus on transportation finances.
“We will not ignore items that have revenue impact, but this commission is not set up to figure out the details on revenues and finance. That will follow. Our job is to say this is what things might look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and give us enough time to figure out what the policies should be,” he said. “We’re putting together what will happen in the future, and then the governor is probably going to put together other folks to take a look at the revenue impact.”
One of the governor’s press aides cut off questioning at that point.
The report, entitled “The Transportation Dividend” and prepared by the business group A Better City, said Greater Boston is the second-most expensive place to do business in the United States behind New York City but thriving economically because of its dense population and a transit system that can deliver workers relatively quickly to employers. The report said Greater Boston, which consists of 164 municipalities in eastern Massachusetts, accounts for 69 percent of the state’s population, 74 percent of its jobs, and 84 percent of its gross domestic product.
“For regional growth to be sustainable, its transit underpinnings must be strengthened through data-driven strategies that fix what is broken, enhance core capacity, and expand service offerings in response to demonstrated economic development opportunities,” the report said.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, said political leaders need to ask for more money and make the case for why it’s needed. “Maintenance is not a vision,” she said, apparently referring to the MBTA’s focus on bringing the transit system up to a state of good repair, which is expected to cost more than $7 billion.
Others on the panel, including Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts; Jarred Johnson of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp., and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, made the case for investments in transportation to address poverty, the city’s racial divide, and transit-oriented development in the Gateway Cities.Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, said dramatic upgrades of the commuter rail system are needed to better connect the region at all times of the day, not just the peak morning and evening rush hours. He hailed Kadish for his work as Baker’s chief of staff in trying to improve commuter rail service, but said much work remains. “It’s unacceptable that we have an unreliable commuter rail system,” he said.
Asked where the money will come from for transportation upgrades, Dempsey pointed to congestion pricing and Johnson cited stalled legislation on Beacon Hill authorizing value capture from businesses that benefit from transportation investments and regional ballot initiatives to raise taxes. Dimino said the business community led the fight for indexing the gas tax to inflation in 2013, a measure that was overturned by ballot question a year later. “Some political leaders decided that wasn’t a good idea,” he said, an apparent reference to Baker, who supported the ballot measure.