Yes to regional equity, no to privatization: The transportation reform debate continues

Secretary of Transportation James Aloisi, who's engaged in a high-profile tussle with Senate President Therese Murray over the contours of transportation reform, shifted gears by giving a shout out to the other "r" in the "reform before revenue" tug of war.

That would be regional equity.

Playing down the revenue piece at yesterday's Joint Committee on Transportation hearing, Aloisi called for reform and regional equity "as quickly as possible." In his brief remarks, Aloisi laid out what the regions could expect: 75 percent of funds collected from a gas tax hike would go back to MassHighway districts where the tax levies originated. Another 2 cents would go toward moving highway employees off MassHighway's capital budget, in order to end the practice of paying workers with bond funds.

Despite Aloisi's protestations to the contrary in a brief Q&A outside the packed hearing room, underlining regional equity mines what has been a lightly tapped vein in the Patrick administration's rhetoric (now designed, of course, to gin up support for parallel tracks of reform and revenue outside metro Boston).

Team Trans could finally be onto something. According to a new Opinion Dynamics survey conducted for Our Transportation Future, almost 50 percent of respondents support a gas tax increase, if that move includes reforming the state's transportation agencies.  54 percent of respondents supported raising the gas tax 20 cents if the hike creates new jobs and helps stimulate the economy.

But regional equity depends on where you drive: 52 percent also supported removing existing turnpike tolls west of Route 128, while setting up new ones at border points. Nearly 50 percent favored restoring tolls on the turnpike west of Springfield.

Aloisi also hinted at new reforms beyond those already made public (such as the $78 million worth of cuts and efficiencies at the MBTA and the turnpike authority). Asked if those would be announced before the MBTA's red-inked budget is finalized this spring, he replied with one of his favorite catch phrases: "stay tuned."

Meanwhile, MetroWest lawmaker Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) took up the regionalism gauntlet, reminding her colleagues that they had to distribute funds equally, no matter which revenue levers are enacted. Otherwise, she said, there will be "some winners and losers and some will end up with nothing.  Spilka lamented that MetroWest has already had a taste of that, getting zero transportation dollars from the federal stimulus package.

However, regional equity could be the least of Beacon Hill's problems. It was only a matter of time before the Legislature's anti-privatization champion, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), threw down his own challenge to the Senate's flirtation with public-private partnerships to run certain transportation assets.

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Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Pacheco took a dim view of what he called "unchecked privatization."

"I will find it very difficult to support any bill that leaves the door open to cronyism" he said, suggesting his colleagues look no further than the Big Dig to see "what we get every single time" with such projects.

In his description of the state statute, the Taunton Democrat modestly neglected to mention that it bears his name. Signed into law in 1993, the Pacheco Law places onerous restrictions on contracting out to the private sector any service that state employees currently perform.