BOSTON — Opening the door for a near-term debate over transportation and transportation financing on Beacon Hill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Massachusetts business community Tuesday morning that he is open to tax hikes or just about any other prescription to address the state's critical needs — but he first wants to know what businesses will support.
Speaking at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, DeLeo said congestion on the roads and unreliable service on public transportation is a problem that "impacts every employee and every business" in Massachusetts. He said he wants the business community to weigh in on what policies it could get behind.
"It's all on the table," DeLeo told reporters after his remarks. He added, "Quite frankly, I think we're at a situation relative to transportation we're at a critical point. If we're going to continue to grow our economy here in Massachusetts, transportation has to be one of the major factors that we address."
DeLeo may be leading the Legislature to revisit a topic that he and lawmakers tried to tackle in 2013, when they added $500 million in new taxes on gas, cigarettes and software services, but later repealed the so-called tech tax. Former Gov. Deval Patrick vetoed the bill because he was looking for a more robust tax package, and lawmakers passed the proposal over his objection.
Since 2013, Democrats in the Legislature have pinned their hopes for new transportation and education revenues on a constitutional amendment raising income taxes on the wealthy, but the proposal improperly commingled topics and was ruled ineligible for the 2018 ballot by the Supreme Judicial Court.
Late last month, A Better City released a report detailing an $8.4 billion shortfall in revenues needed to ensure state roads, bridges and MBTA infrastructure are in a state of good repair over the next 10 years. Business groups have decried the Boston area's public transportation woes as a hindrance to business growth.
DeLeo said he hears "continuously" from MBTA commuters that they are willing to pay their fares — even the increased fares OK'ed Monday by the T's Fiscal and Management Control Board — if it will lead to more reliable service. He said the T should prove that it can be reliable before asking riders to pay even more.
"The governor, as I mentioned, has talked about an $8 billion investment over the next five years, I think that's going to be helpful," he said. "But I think we're at the stage now, especially more as we go along, that yes, we have to prove to the commuters that we can run a good, reliable, clean service if the control board or the T is going to keep on asking them for more funding."
As approved Monday, T train fares will increase by an average of 5.8 percent starting July 1 to come up with $29.5 million per year toward a $2.1 billion budget. Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt abstained from the vote and called the move "premature" because of a lack of information on how the new revenue will be spent.
"The customers have not gotten their customer-facing projects done," she said during Monday's budget discussion. "They haven't, and now we're going to take more money out of their pockets. We consider this a moderate increase. There's a significant number of people in the Commonwealth for whom that is not moderate."
The speaker said he wants to talk with the business community about transportation financing, but also about ways to alleviate congestion on the roads. He said he knows that transportation needs vary throughout the state but because "the business community has told me repeatedly of their interest in resolving this issue," he wants them involved in identifying solutions.
"I know that many in this room have already embarked on thoughtful and productive projects, studies and working groups. We want to make sure, however, that the business community clearly articulates the transportation policies that it can unite behind," DeLeo told the business breakfast crowd at the Seaport Hotel. He said that he is "interested in what employers can bring to the table as we think about the state's transportation networks as we experience this transition. What are your ideas? How can employers become more flexible to help ease rush hour congestion? Can and should the state incentivize innovative transit solutions?"
DeLeo acknowledged the state and the business community have worked to improve transportation in the past, but noted, "People often forget that the Legislature's attempts to direct money into transportation were reversed at the ballot box."
Asked after his speech about gas tax indexing — which voters repealed at the ballot in 2014 — DeLeo said that some state representatives have already approached him to say they would support another attempt to tie the gas tax to inflation.
"Some members have already approached me on it, they feel that they could support," he said. "It's never an easy issue to take up, but again, I think we're at a stage where if we're going to get serious about addressing this issue then everything and anything has to be on the table."
In 2013, the Legislature voted to raise the gas tax by three cents and set it up to continue to increase apace with inflation. Led by then-Rep. Geoff Diehl, activists organized a campaign to repeal the automatic gas tax indexing and secured a spot on the 2014 ballot for a repeal effort. The automatic indexing was repealed with 53 percent of voters in favor.
The speaker also gave voice Tuesday to another proposal for raising money to invest in transportation — hiking the fees charged on rides hired through apps like Uber or Lyft, which can lead to greater congestion. He said the so-called transportation network companies (TNCs) are "part of the issue" and asked Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who led the 2016 push to regulate TNCs, to weigh in.
"I think it's certainly appropriate now, a couple years later, to re-engage in that conversation and have a look at exactly what the appropriate level of balance related to those fees" is, Michlewitz said. "We definitely did them probably at a lower level earlier on because we were, as I said, really concerned about public safety."
Sen. Joseph Boncore, who chairs the Transportation Committee, said after DeLeo's speech Tuesday that there is no "silver bullet" to addressing transportation and said he was pleased DeLeo indicated that a wide range of revenue options could be considered.
"The best scheme to raise revenue for transportation is the initiative that everyone's going to agree to and get behind, whether that's the gas tax, congestion tolling, carbon pricing or toll equity across the Commonwealth," Boncore told the News Service. "Those are all opportunities we have, and my favorite one is the one everyone agrees to. We don't have to agree just on one. We should look at, if not all, at least a few of the different options because the problem is so large and looming over us."
Late last month, Senate President Karen Spilka called transportation infrastructure and financing the policy area with the "most exciting and uncertain" future, and said there is agreement that the state must do something to address transportation but there is not yet consensus on what the fix should be or how to get there.
"Right now, I plan to focus less on individual policy proposals and more on bringing the right people to the table to get things done," Spilka said a meeting of the board of A Better City, according to her prepared remarks. "As I've said before -- I don't think we can afford to take any idea off the table right now when it comes to transportation — either in terms of fixes, or in terms of how we pay for it."
Transportation spending in fiscal 2020 is up for discussion on Tuesday, March 19 during a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing on Gov. Charlie Baker's $42.7 billion budget proposal.
Chris Lisinski contributed to this report.