The Massachusetts Senate closed the door on an increase in the gas tax this year, citing the economic wreckage from the coronavirus for departing from counterparts in the House, who want a higher level to finance a package of transportation improvements.
The House of Representatives had previously voted to raise the gas tax by 5 cents, among other revenue measures, and the Senate also seemed likely to raise revenues for a transportation bill. But that was four months ago, before the onslaught of the pandemic that has put hundreds of thousands of people out of work and slowed economic growth to a near halt.
For weeks, the Senate hinted it may eschew what once seemed an inevitable vote to raise the gas tax. And on Friday, Senator Joseph Boncore, the chamber’s transportation chairman, seemed to rule out any kind of revenue increase for now.
“You’re not going to see anything like that out of the Senate this session,” the Winthrop Democrat said in an interview. “You won’t see a gas tax [increase] when unemployment is 16 percent across the Commonwealth.”
The declaration came as the Senate unveiled a $17 billion bill to authorize borrowing on transportation projects across the state, including money for mega-projects such as the expansion of commuter rail service to Southeastern Massachusetts, and the rebuildng of the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston.
A transportation bill passed by the House of Representatives in March would have raised more than $600 million from the gas tax increase, new fees on Uber and Lyft rides, changes to the state’s corporate tax system, and other sources. The House also passed a sizable borrowing bill of its own.
The House argued that new revenue was required to fund such large-scale improvements. Boncore disagrees.
“We can absolutely afford this bill, even at $18 billion, without any new revenue,” he said.
The House and Senate now seem fated for a debate about who’s right. If the Senate does not consider a revenue increase, the House may balk at adding to the state’s debt levels at a time when existing tax revenues have also plummeted.
“If you’re going to spend more than a certain amount than the revenue permits these days, then it seems to me you have to find a way to pay for it,” said William Straus, the House’s transportation chairman. “I don’t see where the ability to spend at that level comes from.”
A smaller-scale version of this debate played out recently, when the House and Senate each separately voted to allow $300 million in borrowing to fund fixes to local roads, but settled on only $200 million later because of the budgetary impacts of the virus and uncertainty about transportation revenue.
Transit advocates have in recent weeks lobbied the Senate at public events and online campaigns to take up the House bill, and were unhappy with Boncore’s position Friday.
“The House stepped up in the pre-COVID era with ideas it put on the table, and it’s disappointing that, at least for now, the Senate isn’t doing its part,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. “What we’ve heard from the Senate for months now, pre-COVID and even during COVID, is that the transportation status quo is not working. More investments and resources for transportation have to be part of the broader solution.”
Two other potential transportation revenue sources still linger outside the Legislature. The Baker administration is working with several other state governments on a regional policy that would establish a cap-and-trade system on fuel distributors to invest in transit, electric vehicles, and other green transportation initiatives. Although Governor Charlie Baker has said he opposes a gas tax increase, this initiative would result in higher prices at the pump for motorists.
Meanwhile, progressive activists continue to push for a 2022 ballot question that would raise the income tax on earnings over $1 million and funnel the money toward transportation and education.
Boncore noted that Senate’s borrowing bill, which the chamber expects to vote on next week, could still eventually lead to new revenue as well. For example, it includes provisions that would allow local governments to band together and create regional ballot questions, asking local voters whether to raise taxes to fund targeted transportation projects. The bill would also establish a commission that the House included in its bill to study new ways to use tolls, such as a congestion pricing system that puts a price on entering crowded urban areas.
The Senate bill also includes provisions meant to help needy travelers, such as requiring the MBTA to work with health and human service officials to establish a low-income fare. The T has long said it plans to launch such an initiative, but recent debates at the agency have centered on how to pay for it.