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Baker cool to House transportation tax increase

Governor Charlie Baker touted his own transportation plan a day after House lawmakers released a proposed gas tax increase.
Governor Charlie Baker touted his own transportation plan a day after House lawmakers released a proposed gas tax increase.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A day after Massachusetts House leaders released a transportation funding plan that raises taxes and fees, Governor Charlie Baker expressed dismay about the bill and defended his own transportation financing plan. He argued his proposal would result in greater investment in the MBTA and other transportation projects, without raising taxes on gasoline or businesses.

Democratic House leaders on Wednesday unveiled two transportation bills: one raising up to $622 million a year through a combination of increases to the gas tax, Uber and Lyft fees, and corporate taxes; another authorizing $14.5 billion in borrowing to fund projects including rail expansions, transit modernization, and various road and bridge improvements.

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But Baker, a Republican who has long said he opposes a gas tax increase, argued the two bills would actually result in less investment than his own proposals, which would authorize $18 billion in borrowing and dedicate more money from ride-hailing fees to the MBTA.

“I don’t think we need to raise taxes to fund the plan that we filed, which is actually a bigger plan than the one that is going to be debated by the House next week,” Baker said Thursday.

“I was surprised that, somehow, the House actually funds less public transportation than we did in our budget," he added.

Baker also said he opposes the increases to the corporate minimum tax included in the House bill, a priority for many progressive groups and lawmakers.

But while Baker said his plan would limit tax increases, he, too, has been pursuing new revenue to fund transportation that would result in higher costs for motorists and ride-hailing services.

He recently proposed raising Uber and Lyft fees, from 20 cents to $1, largely to fund the MBTA. The House, by contrast, suggested raising fees to $1.20 on solo trips and $2.20 on luxury rides, while keeping the fees at 20 cents for shared trips. The House version would not send as much money from ride-hailing fees to the MBTA, instead dedicating a portion to regional public bus systems.

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And while the governor does not support a direct gas tax increase, he is leading a multistate initiative to establish a cap-and-trade system on gasoline that could hike prices by as much as 17 cents per gallon, with a goal of reducing pollution. Baker says that program is preferable because it would apply to several states, not just Massachusetts — though New Hampshire has rejected the effort and other states have said they are unsure.

Baker’s criticism of the House bills marked an escalation in the long brewing dispute over how to best fix the transportation system.

The House’s proposal would guarantee $187 million in additional funding for MBTA operations. The governor, however, noted that he recently called for the state to provide the MBTA with $200 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

That may not be a direct comparison, because House leaders say that under their plan, the T could receive additional funding beyond its baseline during the budget process.

And state Representative William Straus, who oversees transportation policy in the House, noted that the MBTA regularly takes money the Legislature provides for daily operations and diverts it to the T’s capital budget for longer-term projects.

Under the House proposal, Straus said, there would be enough money for both the operating and capital budgets.

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Straus also said Baker’s proposed $18 billion bond bill was not affordable without the additional revenue the House is proposing, leading to $3.5 billion in reductions, such as removing funds for major roadwork projects around the Cape Cod Canal bridges.

But Straus said some of that money may come back — if the gas tax bill is passed. It will likely come for a vote in the House before the bond bill, at which point lawmakers may feel comfortable amending the bond bill to be closer to Baker’s proposal, Straus said.

“With financing identified, we’d be in the position to talk about spending at the level the governor proposes,” Straus said.

Baker rejected the argument, saying his version of the bond bill was “absolutely” affordable without tax increases, and that his administration would work to prove it to lawmakers.

And he expressed frustration with lawmakers for their proposal to extend the current oversight board at the MBTA without adding a seat for an expert in transit safety or reducing the number of meetings, as recommended in a 2019 report that found safety practices at the agency lacking.

He has proposed a new board that would take over in July, with a safety expert and also a seat representing municipal governance.

Straus said he expected the House’s T governance proposal would be adjusted through amendments offered on the House floor during debate.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.