Metro

Mass. residents — statewide — say they’d pay for better transit

In a series of round tables, Massachusetts residents told state senators they want better transportation options and have a willingness to pay for them.
David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file
In a series of discussions, residents told state senators they want better transportation options and have a willingness to pay for them.

Frustrated by the condition of public transportation infrastructure around the state, residents from Boston to the Berkshires who were engaged by state senators expressed interest in expanded rail and bus service and a willingness to pay for it, according to a new report.

The MassMoves report, put together by a group of senators who spent part of this year traveling around Massachusetts to discuss priorities with voters, is intended, according to Senate leaders, to spark a new dialogue over how to improve transportation.

The exercise, the authors said, aimed to develop a core set of values held by residents whether they live on the North Shore or in Franklin Country. In the report, senators did not propose specific projects, funding sources, or a blueprint for what to do next.

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“I hope this isn’t the end of it. I think there still needs to be more public engagement and flushing out more,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

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As the MBTA grapples with persistent service problems, Massachusetts officials are slowly moving forward with projects to extend the Green Line to Somerville and Medford and bring commuter rail service from Boston to Fall River and New Bedford. Activists have pitched many other projects, including an expansion of South Station in Boston, a tunnel linking trains between North and South stations, and trains connecting Springfield to Boston.

The Amherst Democrat said he wasn’t sure if or when the work done by senators would lead to new legislation, but noted that 16 senators had sent the survey on Tuesday to their social media lists to solicit additional public responses.

More than 80 percent of people who participated in nine Senate workshops around the state indicated they believe the transportation system in Massachusetts is not in good shape, according to the report, which surveyed 715 participants.

The participants broadly believed transportation should be a higher priority for legislators on Beacon Hill, and not only maintaining, but expanding regional rail and bus service was seen by those surveyed as the best option to more easily move people.

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“Clearly people get the connection between mobility and the economy and access to jobs, which is both important for the economy and important for equity. They believe in a system funded by everybody,” said Jim Aloisi, the former state transportation secretary who helped facilitate the regional round tables.

Senator Thomas McGee, the cochairman of the Transportation Committee, said he believes the need could be as much as $1 billion a year in needed new investment.

“The investment we need to make is not happening,” said the Lynn Democrat, who is running for mayor of that North Shore city and has been a proponent of expanded ferry service and an extension of the MBTA’s Blue Line to Lynn.

Aloisi said he was surprised to find that workshop participants “slightly favored” broad-based taxes as a means of financing transportation improvement over user fees, such as tolls. Participants in the survey also supported allowing cities and towns to raise local revenues for transportation projects of their choosing.

Rosenberg and McGee said if voters next November approve a 4 percent surtax on income in excess of $1 million and President Trump and Congress can agree on a transportation stimulus package then Massachusetts may be well on its way to its revenue goal. Both items would be added to the money earmarked in a 2013 transportation financing bill that McGee said has generated about $400 million a year in new money for infrastructure.

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When the 2013 law was approved, its supporters said it solved the longstanding financial problems within the state’s transportation system and would guarantee $805 million in new resources for transportation system by fiscal 2018, including $500 million in new tax revenue. At the time, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he was “confident that we now have the resources to fund a healthy transportation system and build our economy.”

‘People get the connection between mobility and the economy and access to jobs, which is both important for the economy and important for equity.’

While senators say the public favors new transportation resources, voters in 2014 repealed a major aspect of the 2013 law, a provision indexing the gas tax to inflation.

The Senate report was published hours after the release of a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report that also found significant problems in the state’s transportation system and called for the formation of an independent commission to conduct a full review.

Ninety-four percent of Senate workshop participants said transportation needs to be a higher priority for elected officials, and Rosenberg said that legislators ought to pay attention to that statistic despite the ongoing work he sees happening at the State House around transportation.

“There’s plenty of room for people to continue to participate in this process and I hope that it will continue and that we will come to grips with a plan and a way of funding transportation to maintain and grow our robust economy, helping get people to where they need to go for all of he purposes people leave their houses,” he said.

The conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute also put out a study recommending expanded MBTA ferry service as a cost-effective option to move people in and out of Boston without adding congestion on already crowded highways.

Rosenberg said he was happy to see the business community engaging on the issue, and did not rule out a third-party review that would be reminiscent of the 2007 Transportation Financing Commission.

“I certainly don’t object to the idea, I just think we need to get everybody around the same table so we’re not wasting resources and duplicating effort and I think we need to have a really focused process and discussion to complete the work and it has to be honest and we have to reckon with the costs and say how we’re going to pay for it, not just talk about what we’re going to build,” he said.

The Legislature has a House-dominated Joint Committee on Transportation, whose members are charged with considering “all matters concerning the development, operation, regulation, and control of all means of transportation in the air, on land, or in the water, the imposition of tolls on tunnels or bridges and such other matters as may be referred.”

Transportation for Massachusetts Director Chris Dempsey attended all but one workshop — the session for Greater Boston — and believes the report is an important reminder that transportation issues need to be kept at the forefront of Beacon Hill’s policy agenda.

“One of the best reminders here is that US News and World Report ranked us the number one state overall, but forty-fifth for transportation. We have the healthiest, best educated workforce in the country and we make that workforce sit in traffic. That’s no way to run an economy,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey said he hopes the conversation started by the Senate will gain momentum, and in the meantime the Legislature will give attention to bills (H 1640/S 1551) filed by Representative Chris Walsh and Senator Eric Lesser that would allow cities and towns to band together and use regional ballot questions to finance local infrastructure projects.

Rosenberg said the idea for the report came out of a gathering of Senate presidents in Utah over a year ago were he learned about the transportation planning process that state went through to grapple with its growing population.

Utah engaged half a million residents about their preferences for infrastructure, he said, which led to legislation and a ballot question to enact the plan.