With lawmakers in the House and Senate gearing up to take a run at a broad transportation financing package in the next several months, a cadre of business groups is working on a parallel path to influence whatever legislation eventually emerges.
Members of the Massachusetts Business Coalition on Transportation, a statewide group of two dozen business organizations that banded together earlier this year, met Wednesday with House and Senate leaders to check in with each branch and get a sense of what to expect once legislators put pen to paper.
"It strikes me that the Senate and the House both feel the need for legislative action in some rough six-month window between October of '19 and March of '20. I think they both want to act somewhere in that window and they want the business community input," Greater Boston Chamber President James Rooney, who co-chairs the coalition, said Thursday. "Something's going to happen and the business community can continue to either operate in our own group silos and fractured nature, or we can come together to try to influence what ultimately comes out of the legislative bodies."
Business groups have increasingly decried the Boston area's public transportation woes as a hindrance to economic growth. Traffic and congestion on the roads make for long and frustrating commutes by car, and the unpredictable nature of public transportation frequently makes workers late to their jobs.
Rooney said the coalition began its work by grasping the scope of transportation and mobility issues in Massachusetts and the unique issues that affect specific regions. Though the MBTA is the lifeblood of the Greater Boston area, it isn't that important to people on Cape Cod or in the Berkshires, he said. Likewise, the Cape and Berkshires rely on regional transit authorities, which aren't as critical a component in Boston.
Business leaders have heard presentations from A Better City -- which in February released a report detailing an $8.4 billion shortfall in revenues needed to ensure state roads, bridges and MBTA infrastructure are in a state of good repair over the next 10 years -- and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Rooney said. They've also met a few times with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who "shared [the administration's] view of the funding situation," Rooney said.
With months of work behind it, Rooney said the business coalition has "gotten to a point of shared understanding," but is still working towards "a point of shared priorities and solutions."
"The general proposition is that we want a transportation system that is statewide, that is reliable and effective whatever that means in different regions of the state, and that supports the existing economy and the growth of the economy throughout the commonwealth, and a transportation system that not only in and of itself supports the movement of people and goods but also enables us to make progress on key public policy issue including climate, housing, economic inequities," Rooney said. "There's a whole host of public policy issues that depend on a reliable transportation system."
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has been beating the drum to get chambers of commerce and other business groups more involved in discussions around transportation infrastructure and financing and has said he is open to tax hikes or just about any other prescription to address the state's critical transit needs.
Rooney said his group has not yet gotten to the point of debating specific proposals, like an increase in the state gas tax or in the user fees paid with each ride with a service like Lyft or Uber.
"If there's something that we did achieve consensus on, it is that anything that is proposed in the form of revenue needs to be packaged with measurable outcomes. I think I can say that we've agreed universally that we don't think the right approach is just an easy revenue-raising proposal," he said.
Asked what kind of measurable outcomes he would like to see in any eventual bill, Rooney said it is important that the people who will be required to pay more to fund transportation be able to see actual improvements in service. He described a "three-R approach: revenue with results and reforms."
"That, thematically, is pretty strong in the business community. I think people are willing to endure the problems and perhaps even the sacrifices of shutting down lines so they can be worked on or shutting down portions of the roadway if they know that it's going to be better in the end," Rooney said. "We feel like any solution that comes from the Legislature or elected officials should be consistent with that kind of thinking."
Former Transportation Secretary Rich Davey echoed Rooney's thoughts in a Boston Globe op-ed Thursday, in which he wrote that the Legislature should "be sure to put forth a plan based on both revenue and reform."
"There is no doubt the transportation system needs more revenue; however, there are opportunities to spend better the revenue we do have," Davey, now a partner at Boston Consulting Group, wrote.
As the roughly six-month window in which Rooney said he thinks the Legislature wants to act approaches, the business groups plan to stay in touch with both of the branches and the governor's administration to provide input. Though DeLeo has said he will seek a vote on a bill this calendar year, the timeline for action in the Senate is less clear.
"If I had to pick a word describing each of them: the administration is deliberate, the Senate seems to want to be collaborative and the speaker's office has embraced a bold approach. He's clearly been very vocal and public about a piece of legislation this fall that includes funding, so he's been the most bold in terms of a response to the current situation that -- myself included -- many of us have labeled a crisis," Rooney said. "I think there's positive elements to each of the approaches."