BOSTON — Potholes, crumbling bridges and a problem-plagued mass transit system are among the state’s transportation woes, and advocates say new money is needed for repairs.
To that aim, lawmakers are mulling plans for gas tax hikes, new fees and other ways to plug an estimated $50 billion gap in transportation funding over the next two decades.
On Thursday, members of the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee heard from transit advocates, lawmakers and others who want the state to look at tolls to generate more funding. One proposal, filed by state Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, would require the Department of Transportation to study adding toll roads.
Crighton told the panel that commuters in Greater Boston bear a greater burden than those in other parts of the state when it comes to tolls.
"We're not against paying tolls, especially when they're going to transportation infrastructure, but it should be a more equitable system in which all areas of the state pay towards it," he said Thursday. "This isn't about tolling every road but to have MassDOT take a serious look at it both to increase revenue and create a fairer system."
Currently, the state only charges drivers on the Tobin Bridge, at two tunnels beneath Boston Harbor and along the Massachusetts Turnpike, which converted to all electronic-tolling several years ago.
Beacon Hill leaders have resisted adding more toll roads to the mix, or increasing fees, fearing public backlash over the pocketbook impact on constituents.
But Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland has recently suggested looking at new tolls to address worsening traffic and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, several other proposals heard Thursday would reduce or eliminate some tolls for residents in Boston-area communities, as well as for senior citizens.
Lawmakers also heard plans for "congestion pricing" in which tolls are lowered during off-peak times and raised during rush hour, on the Tobin Bridge and elsewhere.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a second-term Republican, argues that the state has sufficient tax and borrowing capacity to make the needed investments in transportation, and he doesn't see a need to raise the gas tax. His administration has filed a bond bill calling for more than $18 billion in investment in transportation in the next five years, with $8 billion devoted to the MBTA.
Baker also opposes congestion tolling but wants to explore adding new lanes to highways that drivers would pay to use, as part of a wider response to congestion.
He suggested "managed lanes" when his administration released a report in August that concluded the state has "reached a tipping point" on dealing with traffic choked roadways.
Massachusetts has an estimated backlog of $50 billion worth of maintenance on roads and bridges — a figure compounded by the decline in federal highway dollars.
Last month, a business coalition called on state leaders to commit to raising more transportation revenue over the next two decades, all with new revenue from a range of transportation-specific sources like fees, tolls and taxes.
The group, "A Better City," says raising the gas tax by 11.5 cents, to 35.5 cents per gallon, would drum up $7 billion by 2040.
Chapter 90 funds — where the state gets most of its transportation money — come from the state’s gas tax, which rose to 24 cents per gallon in 2013 and generates $50 million to $60 million a month, according to the Department of Revenue. Last year, the state collected nearly $800 million from the gas tax.
But much of that money goes into a fund for transportation work, which is also used to pay back money borrowed for major projects, including the Big Dig.
Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, told Transportation Committee members the state needs to consider congestion tolling as well as new toll roads, not just to boost funding but to reduce its "worst-in-the-nation" traffic congestion.
"This tool works well elsewhere, and it's time to find equitable and fair ways to use it in Massachusetts," he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.