The derailment on the Red Line in June may have been a turning point.
After Gov. Charlie Baker visited the crash site, he decided it was time to accelerate repairs on the MBTA and greenlight more shutdowns of the system to speed up projects. The derailment also galvanized the debate over new transportation revenues – for the MBTA and the state as a whole.
The state’s business organizations weighed in last week on the new revenue issue. Several wanted no part of a tax increase and there was scattered consensus on what taxes or fees to raise among those calling for additional transportation revenues. But Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and long-time government analyst Michael Widmer said on the CommonWealth Codcast that the derailment and continuing problems with the T have helped build a case for additional funding.
“Generally, there is a feeling across the board that we need to do better and new revenue is needed to support the Commonwealth’s efforts both on roadways and on transportation,” Rooney said.
Rooney applauds Baker and his administration for accepting responsibility for the T and dramatically improving management of the agency. But he says the T’s operating budget is being squeezed and the capital budget, while fully funded for the next five years, does not include many of the projects that need to be done.
“The question is, should they be doing more over the next five years, and we say yes,” he said.
The Greater Boston Chamber has its own detailed revenue plan, which calls for the creation of a commission to figure out roadway pricing across the state, a 5-cent increase in the gas tax each of the next three years, and a $1 to $1.50 increase in the current 20-cent rideshare fee.
Widmer isn’t sure how Baker will respond if a transportation revenue bill is approved by the Legislature, as seems likely. “He’s very cautious about taxes, and he’s cautious generally,” Widmer said. “That’s why I can’t project what he’ll do.”
Rooney says support for more revenue is building, and notes the bill is likely to include other broadly supported measures dealing with contracting reforms and T governance. “It’ll be a tough veto if he decides to do that,” Rooney said.
Baker has often said that the T is struggling to spend the money it currently has, but neither Rooney nor Widmer buy the argument that new revenues aren’t needed because the transit authority lacks the capacity to spend it.
“This governor got elected and he got reelected because there is widespread appreciation that he is a strong public sector manager,” Widmer said. “He’s got a strong record on solving problems, so if we don’t have the capacity to spend the money we need to spend on the T, then that’s a problem that we need to solve. This is a governor who’s got a whole career, in government and out, solving problems. So I share Jim’s frustration, it’s certainly mine, with the argument that somehow we don’t need new revenues because we don’t know how to spend it. That is not acceptable.”
Rooney said he has briefed House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on the chamber’s plan and the broader revenue discussions within the business community. He said the reaction has generally been positive.
“If there’s a place where there’s a great deal of receptivity, it’s on this notion of creating this future, forward-looking 21st century pricing model [for roadways] that everyone can get behind. Because, while there’s a lot of ideas out there about let’s put tolls there and put congestion pricing there, there’s really nothing you can write in legislation and start Monday morning. You need a plan,” Rooney said. “The last thing legislators want to do is deal with this on an annual basis. I mean, this is a hot issue.”
As for Pollack, who was a leading advocate for new transportation revenues in 2013, the last time the Legislature took up the issue, Rooney indicated the transportation secretary was noncommittal. “They have a plan,” he said of the Baker administration. “They’re sticking to it.”