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The Boston Globe

Opinion

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Pay now or really pay later for transportation

The legislative back-and-forth on the state’s transportation financing plan highlighted this reality: While many politicians moan about the pain of taxes, the taxpayer is being eaten up by the state’s crumbling and creaking infrastructure.

When the House passed a $500 million tax hike earlier this week, it appeared that a myopic Legislature would shred Governor Patrick’s $1 billion transportation plan. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said halfway was as far as the House could go because working class and middle class constituents had no appetite for big new taxes.

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But then the Senate followed up with an $805 million bill, prompting Patrick to say Thursday that signs were pointing in the “right direction” for compromise. Let’s hope so, before our future is compromised.

According to the 2012 Urban Mobility Index of the Texas Transportation Institute, the Boston region has the nation’s ninth largest population area, but we are fifth in annual auto commuter delays. Whatever improvements were brought about by the Big Dig for some commuters, Boston’s delays, according to the institute’s data, are virtually the same today as they were a decade ago.

DeLeo and his like-minded colleagues said we cannot pay now for Patrick’s grand vision for modernized subways for Boston and rail extensions to the south coast. But the cost of being in a disproportionately congested city comes out to $1,147 a year for the average Boston area commuter, according to the index.

To borrow from DeLeo’s pooh-poohing of Patrick’s taxes, that is plenty of “pain on families.” That also seems to be far more than what Patrick’s plan will cost, according to state budget chief Glen Shor. In an interview, Shor said the governor’s total tax plan of $1.9 billion for transportation and education would cost taxpayers nothing in households with annual income under $60,000; about $300 in households earning $60,000 to $100,000; and $300 to $700 for households above $100,000.

There is abundant evidence that serious modernization of transportation has several multiplier effects, so many that the Legislature’s anti-tax posturing represents willful ignorance. Studies by several Boston area civic organizations warn of burgeoning ridership in a city beginning to glitter in innovation.

Glen Weisbrod, president of Boston’s Economic Development Research Group, has calculated that each $1 billion spent on capital investment in public transportation creates 24,000 direct and indirect jobs. With stores, businesses, and cafes sprouting up around transit stations, that $1 billion in investment could spur as much as $1.7 billion in economic growth, he predicts.

“I totally understand the pain of taxes,” Weisbrod said. “But we have to think big picture. I take commuter rail from Framingham and there are days you stand the whole way. Since we don’t yet have any master plans for the next 25 years, what are they going to do, get pushers like they have in Japan to shove people into the trains?”

A new window on the value of mass transit was presented last month by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors. They found that values of real estate in metropolitan Boston within a half mile of transit stations dropped less and rose more during the recession than real estate more distant from a subway or bus line.

That included not just downtown and suburbs, but lower-income areas such as near the Mattapan station at the end of the Red Line. Nationally, homes near mass transit held their value significantly more than homes farther away. “That is because areas around public transportation are more vibrant,” said Rose Sheridan, a vice president for American Public Transportation Association.

The question is whether Beacon Hill can replace myopia with this vision of vibrancy. Many studies say that if we do not pay now to modernize public transportation, we will pay much more later. If we get to the point of employing pushers like Japan, we probably have shoved our future down onto the rails.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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