A long time ago, in a galaxy far away — actually, in March on Beacon Hill — Massachusetts lawmakers were on the cusp of a long-overdue fix to the state’s tattered transportation system. Early that month, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have invested about $600 million a year in the state’s congested roads, crumbling bridges, and overcrowded trains, funded mostly with a modest five-cent boost to the per-gallon gas tax. Governor Baker opposed the hike, preferring that the Legislature focus on the transportation bond bill instead, but he seemed to be in the minority; the Senate said it would pass its own version in the spring.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Legislature scattered, and the economy collapsed. With offices closed and few commuters on the road, the highways temporarily became bearable, reducing some of the urgency around the problem and raising questions about whether travel patterns had changed forever. The Senate voted on a short-term transportation bill last week, but has yet to take up larger legislation like the House’s bill from March. Instead, it looks like Baker might get his way after all, with a bond bill that authorizes new borrowing but no revenue boost.
But the traffic gridlock and underlying environmental concerns that justified the gas tax hike haven’t changed because of COVID-19. And some of the state’s transportation woes, such as the MBTA’s iffy finances, have only gotten worse since March. While it may be necessary to delay the implementation of the tax to avoid adding to the current economic hardship, or incorporate it into a larger response to the state’s sudden budgetary woes, the Senate shouldn’t permanently shelve a broader revenue boost for transportation.
For inspiration, legislators can look to the state’s highways, where traffic jams are already starting to reappear as the state reopens. As the Globe reported Saturday, even though traffic is only at about 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the Southeast Expressway is backing up again. It only gets worse from here. “People who are traveling now without congestion, they can expect to see congestion, I think, in a few weeks,” Jonathan Gulliver, the state’s highway administrator, told the Globe’s Adam Vaccaro.
Of course, it’s still too early to say what kind of impact, if any, the pandemic will have on transportation use in Massachusetts. It’s possible that more residents will work from home, reducing demands on the transportation system. It’s also possible that some commuters will switch to driving to avoid germy T trains and buses, making traffic even worse. Whatever happens, though, it would be better if the T and MassDOT can meet the state’s needs from a position of financial strength. Ensuring that the T and other agencies not only survive the pandemic, but grow as we emerge from the lockdown, is also key to reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
There’s also the reality that although there may never be a perfect time to raise taxes, oil and gasoline prices are as low as they’ve been for years, thanks to plummeting demand and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s most recent mood swing. In Massachusetts, gas prices fell an average of 65 cents a gallon between January and May. Raising the tax by a nickel will leave the state’s gas prices still well below where they stood when the House first voted on the increase. Gas taxes can be regressive, but the House proposal tried to make sure the burden didn’t fall disproportionately on low-income families by also raising corporate taxes and fees for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
State Representative Bill Straus, the chairman of the House transportation committee, has suggested one possible way to provide needed revenue while softening the immediate economic impact: The Legislature could pass a tax increase now, but delay implementation until the state’s economy has reached predetermined recovery milestones. That’s just one approach, but it’s the sort of creativity that the Legislature needs right now. Yes, the world looks different now than it did in March. But the need for a better transportation system in Massachusetts, and greater investment in cleaner options like mass transit, hasn’t changed.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.