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Death by a thousand transportation studies

Posted in: Massachusetts Legislature   State budget   Transportation
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When in doubt, study is the default strategy of Massachusetts lawmakers when it comes to dealing with prickly issues like transportation finance.

Rep. Dan Winslow attempted to slaughter a sacred cow of the Massachusetts transportation sector Tuesday by introducing a proposal to put tolls on Interstate 93 in the form of voluntary high occupancy express lanes.

The MetroWest Daily News noted that “When Dan Winslow talks, people listen.” Except for Rep. William Straus. The transportation committee’s House chairman proposed instead that the best way forward would be for MassDOT to conduct “a full study” of all possible financing changes.

According to a State House News Service summary, when the Norfolk Republican objected to this delaying tactic, the chairman added that finding “a full solution” to the state’s transportation issues could still move forward even if Legislature “didn’t like the study” or found it ”to be incomplete.”

The Legislature has also given the state comptroller a September 1 deadline to come up with a study of how funds might be directed to the MBTA to reduce one year of debt costs.

Whether it’s short-term reports or grand overviews, if any subject has been studied to death in Massachusetts, it’s transportation finance. Which begs the question of what another study could reveal or suggest that isn’t already well-known.

In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission released the granddaddy of all studies on the funding collapse in the transportation sector and proposed a number of remedies (many of them implemented via transportation reform in 2009)  that would allow the state  to hack away at a $20 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.

Two years later, that study begat the D’Alessandro report, an analysis of the MBTA’s financing problems that underlined issues previously identified in the commission report and uncovered significant new safety issues on the Red Line.

The MBTA Advisory Board churns out yearly reports on the T’s fiscal problems, and has done a detailed analysis of the authority’s debt problems.

Independent organizations have also wacked through the transportation jungle: A Better City, a Boston-based economic development group, came up with a transportation finance plan and a second overview of the issue with 17 possible funding strategies, including motor vehicle taxes, high occupancy toll lanes, payroll taxes, development taxes, and public-private partnerships.

MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine, has put out a general overview and a  regional financing strategy.

Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center and the Conservation Law Foundation published a transportation financing framework that looked at ideas, such as a universal pass program for college students, transit passes for municipal employees, and a vehicle miles traveled framework.  Our Transportation Future, a coalition of state groups that support new transportation investments, produced a white paper which explored a variety of ideas and included a rundown of how other states have financed their transportation needs.

That’s just a sampling of a dozen or so exhaustive studies either sanctioned by the state or produced by outside groups in the past five years. The problems and the menu of possible remedies are already on the table. All that remains for lawmakers is to pick and choose the ones that they are willing to stick their collective necks out for.  Rather than saddle MassDOT with another full-blown study assignment, perhaps the agency could edit and collate the previous efforts, update the numbers, and forward that package on to Beacon Hill.

Shortly before the Winslow-Straus exchange, a group of seniors disrupted the session with a protest over recent MBTA fare increases and called for new taxes to shore up public transportation and other elder services. If lawmakers could dispense solutions as quickly as court officers dispersed the protesters from the public gallery, the Bay State’s transportation finance problems would be well on their way to a more satisfying resolution for seniors -- and everyone else.

                                                                                                                                            --GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

The House, during its budget debate, passes major changes to the state’s Community Preservation Act, the Gloucester Times reports. The Herald, in an editorial, asks why the changes are made during a budget debate. The Globe ignores the story. The House also agrees to close the Taunton state hospital.

A state commission formally backs plan to periodically review the state’s $26 billion in tax breaks, the State House News Service reports (via Lowell Sun).

Casino opponents are criticizing the decision to have the head of the gambling industry’s main trade group deliver the keynote talk at the first public information session of the state’s new gambling commission.

Lehigh hearts Winslow.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Plymouth town manager has agreed to resign at the end of the month following a closed door session of the Board of Selectmen in which the agenda item pertaining to his plight was labeled “dismissal or discipline.” But he’s getting $100,000 through the end of the year as a parting gift.

The former Hull police chief called for his successor to be replaced amid growing allegations of misuse of state grant money and sexual harassment charges.

Things are looking worse for Medford’s embattled housing authority director.

A former Hamilton police officer receives $1.3 million in a settlement with the town over allegations that he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on a fraudulent EMT certification scheme, the Salem News reports.

The Kraft Group drops its civil rights complaint against Foxborough.

The Republican backs a casino for Springfield.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The Federal Aviation Administration has released a list of sites around the country where unmanned drones are authorized to launch. The group that forced the release through a Freedom of Information request has created a map showing the entities that have drone licenses, from defense contractors to universities.

The push is on in Washington to freeze student loan rates at their current level for another year, the Worcester Telegram reports. Both US Sen. Scott Brown and his chief Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, support the move.

Keller@Large says whatever you think of our Massachusetts politicians’ ideologies, they are a far sight better in character when compared to John Edwards.

Charlies Chieppo promotes the idea of rewarding public workers who produce with higher pay – in Governing.

ELECTION 2012

Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee try to get on the same page after Romney’s Tuesday primary victories. Meanwhile, A Christian Science Monitor article looks at the challenges facing a weak challenger like Romney and a weak incumbent like President Obama.

It’s tax-return-apaloza in the Brown-Warren senate race.

Jose Santiago, a former state rep and Methuen police officer, says he intends to challenge Democratic state Rep. Marcos Devers as an unenrolled candidate, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Slate calls Sen. Marco Rubio this year’s Sarah Palin.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Massachusetts home sales rose 19 percent in March over the previous year, making it the busiest period for sales since 2007.

Ned Johnson appears -- and speaks -- in public.

Is the Citibank pay revolt a sign of capitalism reining itself in? Time asks.

Brian McGrory continues his series on capitalism not reining itself in at Liberty Mutual.

WBUR’s Radio Boston analyzes the online sales tax.

Apple has a gigantic quarter. The company only debuted the iPhone six years ago, and now it’s mostly a phone company that dabbles in computers on the side.

The SEC outs one of its whistleblowers.

Small banks struggle to repay $15 billion in bailout funds.

HEALTH CARE

Steward Health Care System has named a new president for Carney Hospital, the troubled Dorchester facility whose past president, BIll Walczak, departed after only 14 months.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A Houston company is exploring the idea of a major regional pipeline to bring more natural gas supplies to New England, the Globe reports.

Dartmouth voters at Town Meeting approved restrictions that would bar large-scale solar projects.

Six of the 12 Massachusetts counties received an “F” for ozone pollution in a new American Lung Association report.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Federal agents search a home office belonging to a company called Epic International Electronics in Methuen, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

Roger Clemens’s second trial for perjury gets underway.

MEDIA

The online non-profit news website MinnPost prepares to host its fifth MinnRoast fundraiser with Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Al Franken, and other pols, the Nieman Journalism Lab reports.

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