So, about that gas tax increase.
Just a week before the Massachusetts economy was brought low by the coronavirus, the House of Representatives approved a transportation funding package that included a 5-cent per gallon hike in the gas tax, the first such increase in more than five years. The state Senate pledged to take up the issue later in the spring, promising an approach that would encourage more commuters to shift from personal cars to public transit.
It was a sign that the Legislature was zeroing in on what had been one of the top issues facing the state: its congested highways, worn-out transit infrastructure, and grinding commutes.
Now, those problems feel like part of a distant past. And with the virus at the center of virtually all legislative action and the economy in shambles, key lawmakers overseeing transportation policy in each chamber sound like they’re having some second thoughts about the gas tax.
State Representative William Straus still favors increasing the gas tax this session, but delaying its implementation until the economy improves. The idea would be to tie the increase to some sort of economic trigger, such as the unemployment rate, and only raise the gas tax when that measure indicates a recovery.
“We could certainly do the legislative approval right now, but we have to recognize that the economic activity level has to be different from today,” Straus said. “I just don’t think it can fairly be implemented given the current situation. At the economy we had, it was appropriate.”
Some advocates for increased transportation spending have argued that now is actually the perfect time to raise the gas tax, as an over-supply and deep drop in demand has sent gas prices plummeting by far more than the proposed increase. Straus disagreed.
“That may have an academic reality to it," he said. "But given how many people are out of work, it’s probably, just from a policy standpoint, the wrong time.”
These decisions are in some ways already out of Straus’s hands: the House has passed its version of the bill, which would also raise fees on Uber and Lyft trips and impose new taxes on corporations and rental car companies. But the Senate had hinted it would take a different approach, so it was likely that the two chambers would return to discuss the funding question anyway.
Meanwhile, Straus’s counterpart in the Senate, Joseph Boncore, was non-committal about even taking up any transportation matters before the current Legislative session ends. Lawmakers’ focus, he said, must be on the public health emergency and the economic downturn that it has already wrought.
“We’re obviously in a much different position than we were a few months ago,” he said. “We’re just in an evolving and ever-changing situation right now. ... We have to face the reality that we’re in the middle of an economic crisis and so any further economic impediment on people is something we have to think long and hard about."
Transportation is still a “long-term priority” of the Senate and may still get attention this year, Boncore said. But “whether or not revenue is included in that, we’ll have to reassess,” he added.
Even before the virus, Governor Charlie Baker had long said he opposed a gas tax increase, and suggested he may veto such a bill. However, he had championed a multi-state climate initiative that would establish a new auction system for fuel distributors to pay for green transportation projects, lifting consumer gas prices by as much as 17 cents a gallon. In pitching the proposal, Baker has often noted that gas prices fluctuate from week to week under normal circumstances.
The Baker administration says the states are still discussing the proposal during the pandemic. It was once expected to be finalized this spring, but the virus has commanded most of the participating governors’ attention, and it’s not clear when the initiative might move forward.
Ken Kimmel, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has advocated for the policy, said it’s all but certain to be delayed “for understandable reasons,” but expects it to still happen. The economic concerns, he said, are mitigated by the timeline: the plan probably won’t go into effect until 2022, by which point the coronavirus will have hopefully passed.