Baker makes pitch for transportation projects

CHRISTIAN M. WADE/CNHI photo/Gov. Charlie Baker, left, seated with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, makes his pitch to lawmakers on Tuesday to borrow $18 billion over the next five years to help fix crumbling roads and bridges while reducing vehicle emissions and traffic congestion. 

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker wants to borrow $18 billion over the next five years to help fix crumbling roads and bridges while reducing vehicle emissions and traffic.

Baker personally made his pitch to lawmakers on Tuesday, telling a legislative panel reviewing his latest transportation bond bill that it will provide needed funding for the state's infrastructure.

He told lawmakers that transportation woes, coupled with a shortage of housing, threaten the state's economic growth.

"We have enviable problems," Baker told the Legislature's Transportation Committee. "Our economy is growing, our population is growing, and the economic activity that dominates our commonwealth is constrained by the limits of our current system."

The Legislature passes transportation bonds every few years to fund capital transit projects and needs, but Baker's proposal filed earlier this year goes further than previous plans in both size and scope.

More than half of the proposal would be earmarked for the Department of Transportation's Highway Division, including nearly $9 billion for highway work, $1.25 billion for bridges and $150 million for roadway resurfacing.

Another $50 million would go toward a "local bottleneck" program to alleviate backups on local roadways.

The plan also calls for the creation of a new tax credit intended to encourage telecommuting and remote work. Under the plan, a $2,000-per-employee tax credit, capped at $50 million per year, would be awarded to businesses that allow working from home as a way of reducing the number of vehicles on traffic choked roads.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority would get $5.7 billion to modernize its fleet of commuter rail trains, subway and buses.

The plan also provides money to expand designated bus lanes, encourage travel by foot and bicycle, and create incentives to reduce bottlenecks on local roadways.

"I know this is may be counterintuitive to argue at a bond bill hearing, but funding is actually the easiest of the critical paths we face," Baker told lawmakers on Tuesday. "And all the funding in the world doesn’t matter if we can’t deliver projects."

In August, the Baker administration rolled out a report suggesting the state has reached a "tipping point" on transportation needs.

It recommends adding new "managed lanes" to state highways where motorists would be charged additional fees to use them as part of a wider response to congestion.

"Done right, these lanes give a quicker trip to the people paying for the lane, as well as other users in buses and in van pools," Baker said Tuesday.

Transportation advocates want the state to pursue bold initiatives to ease traffic backups, such as congestion pricing for commuters — an idea the Baker administration has rejected.

The state crucially needs to come up with new revenue sources to fund road, bridge and infrastructure upgrades.

A proposed "millionaires tax" would have drummed up an estimated $2 billion a year, but it was knocked off the November 2016 ballot by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Advocates have refiled the proposal with goal of putting it on the 2022 ballot.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

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