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Regional transit taxes get lukewarm reception

MassINC proposal applauded outside Boston, not on Beacon Hill

BY: Gabrielle Gurley
Photographs By: Brittany Tucker

Bay State regional leaders applauded new proposals outlined in a new MassINC report that would empower metro Boston and other areas of the state to tax their own residents to finance transportation projects, but state officials were lukewarm at best.

Equity is a major concern for areas outside the MBTA service area. With 1 cent of every 6.25 cents raised by the state’s sales tax going to the MBTA, regions like the Pioneer Valley are helping to pay for a system that their residents do not use. The MassINC report indicates regions outside Greater Boston get shortchanged in state transportation funding and as a result aren’t spending enough on their transit systems.

“The regional transit authorities were really very, very pleased that, really for the first time, there was a thorough analysis of [their] dire financial straits,” said Mary MacInnes, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority administrator.

Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Council, embraced the idea of letting regions identify and pay for their own transit projects. “There is probably never going to be enough revenue in the system, so you need to ask the voter, “‘Do you want to invest in yourself?’” he said.

Brennan wasn’t sure if a payroll or vehicle-miles-traveled tax, the levies recommended by MassINC to supplement existing state aid, would garner support in the Pioneer Valley. But after the forum he said he had a “gut instinct” that going to voters with options, such as a 1 percent regional sales tax or a hybrid sales and payroll tax, would stand a “chance of success.”

Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey admitted that, in Massachusetts, questions about transportation funding usually focus on the MBTA or the Big Dig to the exclusion of everything else. “If you rely on public transportation in Pittsfield, Springfield, or Worcester, good luck to you on the weekends and that’s an equity issue,” he said before his keynote address at a MassINC forum on the independent think tank’s report on new strategies to raise money for the state’s troubled transit networks.

Both Davey and Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, pointed out at the forum a major drawback to a regional payroll or vehicle-miles-traveled tax: the absence of a regional framework to administer and collect levies, such as the county government structure found in most other states. Counties in Massachusetts exist as geographic entities, but they have no local government functions. Only a few officials, such as sheriffs, are elected.

Not only does giving the regions the ability to raise their own revenues require approval from the Legislature, but creating a more flexible system would mean that Massachusetts would have to pull back from hundreds of years of decentralized local government, according to Davey.

The MassINC report said a payroll tax in Portland, OR, pays for its transit system, but Davey said a state like Oregon, where he lived for a year, “is not as provincial as we are.”

McGee stressed the need for a larger statewide conversation outlining to the public the costs and the benefits of transportation investments. McGee said communities like his on the fringes of the MBTA do not believe that they are getting their fair share of service for the dollars they pay to support the agency.  “We have to recognize that this is a state problem and we have to build [public] trust back up,” said McGee.

The senator offered no timeline for jumpstarting a debate about transportation revenues on Beacon Hill. “Is there ability to find consensus in this current legislative session?” he asked after the forum. “I don’t know that I can answer that.”

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, who has broached the need for new transportation revenues several times in recent weeks, was noncommittal in his keynote address. “The issues and approaches here are something we want to take a hard look at,” he said.

The lack of new transportation revenues means that Massachusetts relies heavily on borrowing to finance projects. According to a new study by Transportation for Massachusetts, the sector is groaning under debt, with 45 percent of the current MassDOT and MBTA budgets going to debt payments. Even when a project receives funding from the federal government, which pays 80 percent of the cost, Massachusetts, unlike most other states, often borrows money to make the match.

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