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Businesses plead for solution to alleviate traffic congestion woes

October 30, 2019

Nearly every major business organization in Massachusetts has united behind a call for more government spending to expand public transit and improve the roads, with the hope that a new infusion of cash can help solve the congestion-related woes that vex their workers.

The business community’s call to action is due to be released Wednesday, several weeks before the House of Representatives will debate a major transportation bill that could lead to billions of dollars in improvements.

While there was wide support for some form of additional revenue, there was less consensus about how best to raise the money, according to a report issued by the business groups. Increasing the state’s gas tax garnered support from only a slim majority in the poll of business groups. While that majority did not agree on a specific increase, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce backs a 15-cent increase, phased in over three years, and many others support a similar increase. At that size, it would be the biggest hike in a generation.

More popular options included raising fees on Uber and Lyft rides, and considering expanding the use of tolls, such as adjusting the price based on the time of day a commuter uses the roads.

“This is what I would call a watershed moment,” said Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that has focused on transportation as far back as the Big Dig. “We can’t really have a transformative 21st-century system without new revenue.”

The business group efforts were organized by Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Rooney, a former head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The cross section of 28 chambers of commerce and other associations undertook months of discussing various initiatives and then each group was polled on its preferred solutions.

One goal, Rooney said, is “to create pricing that’s not just based on how much money we need, but what behavior we want to incentivize,” such as encouraging more drivers to switch to public transit, or commute in off-peak hours.

Another goal: to find ways to pay for popular projects, such as electrifying the commuter rail system and expanding South Station, that lack funding today.

The groups were spurred in part by a call from House Speaker Robert DeLeo for their ideas to prepare for the upcoming transportation debate. Senate President Karen Spilka has also asked business leaders for ideas.

Business support could help give some political cover as lawmakers tackle the tough topic of raising taxes and fees to deal with what many executives consider to be a full-blown crisis.

While Rooney did not indicate how each business group voted, two major organizations have already declined to support a state gas tax increase.

For now, the Massachusetts High Technology Council and Associated Industries of Massachusetts are only willing to back a climate-change fee on motor vehicle fuels that is being championed by Governor Charlie Baker, and not a straight-up gas tax increase as Rooney and other chamber members propose. Though the fee would likely drive up the cost of gasoline, Baker and other proponents have resisted calling it a tax increase.

This to-be-determined charge is being considered by several Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states as part of a group effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would not need the approval of the Massachusetts Legislature.

AIM and Mass. High Tech said the state needs to reform the way it spends money on transportation projects before considering additional revenue sources. These measures include streamlining procurement and better integrating the design stages of a project with construction, and are outlined in an $18 billion transportation bond bill Baker filed earlier this year.

“There’s a whole lot of structural problems that are preventing the T and the DOT from spending the money they have now,” said Chris Geehern, executive vice president at AIM. “Dumping a boatload of money on that situation strikes us as really inefficient.”

Meanwhile, a separate, smaller coalition led by the Kendall Square Association submitted its own recommendations to the Legislature that echo those of the bigger group: a gas tax increase of 18 cents a gallon, new Uber and Lyft fees, and congestion pricing through tolls on the highways.

“We’re in a genuine crisis,” said KSA president C.A. Webb. “The system has been underfunded for at least a generation.”

Representative William Straus, the House cochairman of the transportation committee, said House leaders met for 90 minutes on Monday to work on the transportation bill. Those deliberations will continue, to prepare a bill in time for a floor debate in the third week of November. The Senate will then take up the issue in 2020, with both sides needing to reach an agreement by the end of next July.

More than 30 states have a tax higher than the current Massachusetts gas tax of 26.5 cents a gallon, according to the Tax Foundation. A gas tax hike would be the first since a 3-cent increase in 2013, when the Legislature also adopted an automatic increase going forward indexed to inflation. That indexed increase was subsequently repealed by voters in a ballot initiative in 2014.

Still, the 2013 increase was itself the first in more than two decades; meanwhile the cost of a monthly T pass has essentially tripled since 1991, according to the Greater Boston Chamber.

The vast majority of business groups agree on a higher charge for Uber and Lyft rides than the current 20-cent-per-ride fee on ride-sharing trips, to at least $1 a trip. A slight majority support even higher rates for trips during peak times.

Then there is the future of tolls. Most business groups say the current system is inequitable; only a small segment of commuters pay tolls today. They recommend a state task force that could analyze the most effective places to put new electronic toll gantries, and whether to use time-of-day pricing to encourage drivers to hit the road at less-congested periods.

Baker, meanwhile, has suggested allowing motorists to pay their way out of congestion by building toll lanes that charge for the right to zip past backed-up traffic in adjacent lanes. In August, the Baker administration released a report that acknowledged the Boston area’s epic traffic jams had reached a tipping point. The governor has proposed using the new climate fee to fund some of the projects in his $18 billion bond bill.

During the past few years, transportation has emerged as a top issue for members of many business groups as their workers wrestle with frequent train and bus delays and the occasional derailment, and brave the seemingly ever-growing rush hours.

“It’s so counterproductive to be stuck in this quagmire,” said Newton-Needham Chamber president Greg Reibman.

“We know it’s bad for our economy, and it’s bad for productivity, but it’s also really bad for morale,” he added. “It was really important that the business community get together and speak collectively.”

Read this story on the BostonGlobe.com.