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‘I’ve never participated in a meeting like that’: Inside the House’s great transportation debate

Leaders walk tightrope as they consider huge increase in taxes or fees.

The State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

One group of lawmakers suggested tolls at the state’s border. Others want a dedicated revenue stream for regional transit hubs. Some simply asked that their towns not be forgotten.

As Massachusetts House leaders shape the details of a long-awaited transportation financing bill, they have spent weeks systematically meeting behind closed doors with the caucuses and delegations that make up the chamber’s membership, asking for input on a bill that could raise hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes or fees.

The approach is an unusual and painstaking one that, legislative leaders hope, will solicit ideas and help build consensus for a bill that would separate residents from more of their money — no small task in an election year. It’s also made something else clear: Lawmakers’ wish list for any new money is a lengthy one.


“Everyone needs to see that their constituency is in the bill,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat who sits on House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team and met with the bill’s architects as part of Boston’s delegation. “It’s always complicated when you have bills like that. And it’s always expensive.”

The exercise — led by Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chairman, and Representative William M. Straus, chairman of the transportation committee — underscores the difficult task facing the Legislature.

Just about everyone inside and outside the State House agrees the state’s transportation networks have lurched into crisis, with jam-packed highways, deteriorating roads, and problem-plagued trains providing a daily reminder of the state’s transit troubles. But the amount of new money needed, and where to best funnel it, is an open debate, as is perhaps the stickier question: How should lawmakers actually raise it?

Nearly a year ago, DeLeo publicly asked for input from business leaders, who want action but did not overwhelmingly coalesce around how to raise revenue. Various advocates have pressed their case, fanning out polls and reports with recommendations. Reams of bills offer no shortage of ideas.


Some have appeared to gain traction. Straus has long said generating enough money in the bill would be difficult without raising the state’s 24-cents-a-gallon gas tax. And DeLeo said last week that hiking the fees applied to Uber or Lyft rides was “actively being considered” after Governor Charlie Baker included the idea in his budget proposal.

But even now, lawmakers say the legislation’s full scope, as well as its exact timing this winter, remains a work-in-progress. So after DeLeo opted to push into 2020 a debate he originally targeted for last fall, Michlewitz and Straus began January by huddling with groups of lawmakers who share geography or ideology to gather feedback.

It set off a relatively unorthodox process in a chamber that can often lean on siloed committees to produce legislation and the speaker’s office for direction.

“I’ve never participated in a meeting like that in my time in the building,” said Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, a Holliston Democrat who joined the House in 2009 and chairs the Legislature’s MetroWest caucus.

The meetings, held in Michlewitz’s second-floor office, can last for an hour, if not more. There’s been roughly 10 so far, with more scheduled for this week, and have featured groups ranging from the chamber’s nearly 60-person Progressive Caucus to the Massachusetts Black and Latino Caucus to lawmakers who represent so-called Gateway Cities.


“When we set out, there are caucuses among colleagues that I wasn’t even aware of,” Straus said. “I think it’s been an education for everyone.”

It’s also produced ideas aplenty. Members of the MetroWest caucus, whose towns use the commuter rail as a vital link to the city, laid out concerns over unreliable trains and the impact of major construction projects, including the expansive viaduct project in Allston.

But Dykema said members also view the bill as a chance to expand tolling beyond the Massachusetts Turnpike, on which many of their constituents also rely to get to and from work. “I think the vast majority of us [in the caucus] would welcome tolls at the border or tolled lanes on additional roadways,” she said.

The House Progressive Caucus, meanwhile, said a focus should also be on generating economic development in low-income communities or the “decarbonization of all modes of transportation” — with the brunt of any tax increases falling on businesses.

“We believe that the greater part of new transportation-related revenue should be collected through corporate taxes,” Representatives Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Jack Patrick Lewis, the caucus co-chairs, said in a statement.

The Legislature’s Regional Transit Authority Caucus, a collection of lawmakers who represent towns and cities served by the 15 RTA’s that provide local bus service, pressed for a dedicated state funding source for those agencies outside any annual budget allocation.

At the moment, only the MBTA has one, an automatic portion of the state’s sales tax receipts. Any type of new revenue stream for the RTA’s can help pay for night or weekend service in places they don’t have it, lawmakers argued.


“That was the ask,” said Representative Sarah K. Peake, a Provincetown Democrat who co-chairs the caucus and sits on DeLeo’s leadership team. “Everything is on the table and as long as we get our fair share, we’re going to feel OK about it.”

Representative Paul W. Mark, a Peru Democrat who co-chairs the Rural Caucus, said its meeting delved into discussion about closing corporate tax loopholes to help offset any potential increase to the gas tax that could pinch places, like his 850-person town 12 miles east of Pittsfield, that don’t have public transit options.

“When we talk about transportation funding, it all ends up going to the MBTA, or it all ends up going to the Boston area,” Mark said. “If we’re going to do this thing, we want to make sure that rural towns, regardless of location, aren’t forgotten."

DeLeo said Monday that any overarching price tag on the bill still “varies," and Moran, who serves as a second assistant majority leader under the Winthrop Democrat, said House leadership has yet to present members with definitive language. But Moran said his “instinct” is the bill will ultimately total roughly $700 million in revenue, which he acknowledged may not satisfy everyone.

“But the last big tax vote I took was repealed,” Moran said, referencing a 2013 law that, in part, tied the state’s gas tax to inflation. Voters the next year struck down the provision at the ballot box, a development that still colors some lawmakers’ thinking this time.


“Everyone is [saying] just, ‘Raise revenue,’ ” Moran said. “That’s great. We did that — and then the voters said, ‘No thank you.’ ”

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.