It’s an odd thing to breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of more than $500 million in new state taxes. Yet, that’s where Massachusetts taxpayers find themselves this week after the Legislature approved a sweeping plan to pour new money into the state’s crumbling, financially unstable transportation system.
The new spending, which would be fueled by tax increases of $265 million next year, $504 million in 2015 and more than $800 million in 2015, will be pulled from many pockets. There’s a 3 percent increase in the gas tax (tied to inflation, and sure to rise), a $1 jump in the cigarette tax and a vague, somewhat nebulous tax on computer and software design services. Aside from the gas tax, the new revenues have little to do with transportation.
Still, it could have been worse. Gov. Deval Patrick put forth a plan that called for spending an extra $1.2 billion a year on the transportation system. Patrick’s plan would have used an income tax hike to help stabilize the transportation budget and pay for big-ticket items like the renovation of South Station.
While Massachusetts’ transportation system faces a wide range of problems, Patrick’s plan to deal with them all at once was too ambitious and expensive, especially given the delicate recovery of the state economy.
The Legislature’s plan, while expensive in its own right, addresses many of the infrastructure issues and also takes the important step of putting the MBTA on sound financial footing by moving its employees off the capital budget, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas McGee of Lynn, one of the chief architects of the deal.
“This isn’t a final solution to what we face in terms of investment in transportation,” McGee told the State House News Service. “This is something we need to do and make sure it’s a priority every year and make sure it’s part of the key pieces of government we work on every year.”
The bill also assures a $300 million yearly investment in the state’s Chapter 90 funding — the money the state passes along to cities and towns to help maintain municipal roadways. So far this year, the Patrick administration has released only half that amount.
“Communities maintain 90 percent of the roadways in the state, and this is a timely and essential investment to fix crumbling roads in every corner of Massachusetts,” the Massachusetts Municipal Association noted in a statement after Wednesday’s state Senate vote in favor of the plan. “In addition, increasing Chapter 90 to $300 million a year will yield immediate benefits and address a major goal of transportation reform — regional equity. The Chapter 90 program is the most effective and efficient way to ensure regional equity and regional access to increased transportation tax revenues. Cities and towns receive their funds through a tried-and-true formula that shares revenues in a fair way with taxpayers in every community. Plus, cities and towns face such a backlog of need that the increase will immediately result in visible and necessary construction and repair projects on local roads across Massachusetts.”
Patrick has already signaled that he’s not happy with the Legislature’s compromise effort and may send the bill back with an amendment that would allow the state to keep Mass Pike tolls past 2017, when they are scheduled to come down.
The Patrick administration said the loss of the tolls isn’t accounted for in the Legislature’s plan.
“We are willing to compromise,” state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told the News Service. “The challenge is that we’re not going to have an $805 million bill in front of us. It’s more like a $670 million bill.”
Frankly, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. A large chunk of the state’s transportation problems — which must be dealt with before they become even more expensive — would still be addressed, and another $135 million would remain in drivers’ pockets. Along with releasing the last $150 million in Chapter 90 funding, Patrick should sign the overall transportation bill as is; if he doesn’t, the Legislature should certainly override his veto.