How bad is traffic in Massachusetts?
Bad enough that five years after a humbling rebuke from voters that turned gas tax into a dirty word on Beacon Hill, the Legislature is again considering proposals for a hike that would pay for the road, bridge, and transit investments that commuters desperately need to unclog the roads.
As the Globe has reported, proposals are floating around Beacon Hill, with advocates pushing for tax hikes of up to 25 cents a gallon. The House is expected to unveil a transportation-financing plan in early 2020 that may include a hike to state-imposed taxes at the pump, currently totaling 26.5 cents a gallon.
It’s laudable that lawmakers are taking on a potentially unpopular issue, because, for now, raising the gas tax remains the fastest and most practical way to close the state’s transportation funding gap and address the backlog of infrastructure needs. As the Globe’s Spotlight report on traffic congestion last week showed, the failure to invest adequately in transportation is hurting the state’s economy, environment, and quality of life. But lawmakers ought to learn from the past. Securing more funding is too important this time to get the political calculus wrong: Beacon Hill must take steps to ensure that new revenue-raising mechanisms don’t provoke another backlash.
A 2013 law, which voters largely repealed in a 2014 ballot question, would have raised the gas tax automatically with inflation. Indexing might be a good idea — the Globe Editorial Board certainly thought it was at the time — but it’s proved politically unpalatable. Not surprisingly, indexing doesn’t show up in gas tax plans from local mayors (many of whom back a 15-cent hike) or transportation advocates (who aim for 25 cents). Indeed, there’s no point for now revisiting such a proposal.
With good reason, some critics object to gas taxes because they tend to be regressive, with the impact hitting poor drivers hardest. But there are ways the Legislature could — and should — offset the impact with a new law. The left-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, while skeptical of raising the gas tax, recommends that, if lawmakers do hike the tax, they pair it with an increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit that low-income workers can claim on their tax returns. By the center’s calculations, the state would have to spend only about 23 percent of the amount it would take in from a hike to cushion the impact on the poorest drivers.
Another way to build political support: Make sure any increase is phased in slowly. The price of gasoline jumps around so much — depending on the season, economic conditions, refinery outages, Saudi politics — that a gradual tax increase could go down easier because it would be less noticeable at the pump. A slow phase-in would also give the state bureaucracy time to build up its project-delivery capacity, a concern raised by the Baker administration.
One new argument against raising the state gas tax is that since the Baker administration is already planning to impose a carbon fee on gas, which will look and feel like a tax, the state shouldn’t hit drivers with a double whammy. But while the gas tax and carbon fee look similar, they’re not. The carbon initiative would not take effect until around 2022, and its proceeds will be used to decarbonize the transportation system, reducing the state’s emissions, which contribute to climate change. The state needs revenue now, though, for bread-and-butter work like fixing the state’s 482 structurally deficient bridges.
Lawmakers could include with any increase to the gas tax a commitment to eventually move away from gas taxes altogether in favor of a mileage-based charge. When the gas tax was created, gasoline consumed was a good proxy for mileage, making it a fair way to charge drivers for their use of the roads. But with increases in vehicle fuel efficiency and the growing availability of electric cars that burn no gasoline at all, states and the federal government will eventually have to shift to a new financing model so that all drivers are paying their fair share. Right now it’s more important to leave in place the modest incentive the gas tax provides drivers to ditch gas-guzzlers, but eventually Massachusetts will need to shift to a different financing system. It would be wise to plan ahead.
It would also make sense for the Legislature to consider other financing tools — both to diversify revenue sources and as a hedge if voters torpedo a tax hike again. That could include more fees on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft; greater use of tolling, including congestion pricing; or granting cities or groups of cities the ability to create tax surcharges to pay for transit. Some of Governor Baker’s bond bill proposals — to allow public-private partnerships for projects like electrifying the MBTA’s commuter rail and to expand the range of projects that gas tax revenues can fund via state bonds — are also worth including.
As a way to reduce driving, gas taxes have a mixed record. But even if the price signal sent to drivers is modest or negligible, the revenue from a tax hike is sorely needed in Massachusetts. With more money, the state could improve speed and frequency on the commuter rail system; provide better bus service, especially outside Boston; protect transit users from fare increases; and more. There’s no magic bullet for congestion, but each of these measures could contribute significantly to reducing traffic and improving the quality of life for the Commonwealth’s residents.
Nationally, voters tired of inadequate transportation systems have warmed to gas taxes, and even deep-red states like Alabama and South Carolina have boosted theirs. The Commonwealth’s gas tax is about 10 cents a gallon below the national average, and even a 25-cent hike would still leave us with lower taxes than Pennsylvania, California, or Illinois. Long-suffering Boston commuters — and drivers across the state — should hope Massachusetts gets serious about raising the money it needs to tackle its crippling congestion.