Governor Charlie Baker, who proposed a fee increase on Uber and Lyft trips twice in 2020, on Friday vetoed a proposal to do just that, while approving a broader borrowing package that will authorize up to $16 billion in spending on transportation projects.
The transportation bond bill will fund a wide array of projects, such as reconfiguration of the roads near the Cape Cod bridges, construction of South Coast Rail commuter service to New Bedford and Fall River, and the electrification of parts of the commuter rail, as well as many other smaller-scale road, bridge, and transit projects. In a statement, Baker said the bill will allow “significant investments for building and modernizing a statewide transportation system for our residents, businesses and communities.”
But while approving of the bulk of the measure passed by the Legislature, Baker vetoed a number of policy proposals in it that lawmakers attached to the bill, including ones to explore reduced transit fares for low-income riders, and congestion pricing for highway driving.
Most surprising, though, was the governor’s rejection of the Legislature’s increase in fees on ride-hail trips, to $1.20 for trips taken by single riders, and to 40 cents for shared rides in order to encourage more carpooling. A separate surcharge would have added 20 cents for rides taken within some Greater Boston communities.
Baker himself had proposed an 80-cent fee increase months before the Legislature even considered it, and he resurfaced the idea as recently as October. But, in a letter to lawmakers, the governor suggested part of his issue was with the differential pricing between solo trips and shared trips.
“This proposal would create a complicated fee structure that is based on pre-pandemic assumptions,” Baker wrote. “Before instituting fees that are aimed at incentivizing certain travel behaviors, we need to understand what ridership and congestion patterns are going to look like after the pandemic.”
The move baffled some transportation advocates, who had cheered Baker’s prior support for increasing the fees to help fund public transit.
“This decision is a head-scratcher given it’s a proposal he’s expressed support for in the past,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy organization Transportation for Massachusetts. “He can quibble with the details, but blocking this change ultimately leaves us with the status quo which he was the first to say wasn’t working.”
And Representative William Straus, who led the House’s negotiations on the bill, questioned whether the state can afford the level of borrowing in the transportation bill without the revenue from ride-hail fees, which were projected to raise an additional $95 million a year if ridership returned to 2019 levels.
“If at the end of the day, the administration’s approach is to borrow money but not support the revenue that backs it up, that’s an unusual approach,” Straus said.
Baker also cited changes in commuting habits during the pandemic as he vetoed a proposal to study congestion pricing, which uses tolls to discourage driving during heavy-traffic periods. In his letter, he said it’s unclear whether congestion will even remain a major issue long-term as more people have begun working remotely during the pandemic.
Also vetoed was a requirement that the MBTA implement a fare discount for low-income riders, a policy that agency officials have long promised to enact. In his letter, Baker said he supports a low-income fare program, but that it cannot go into place until the MBTA has a plan to fill the revenue it would lose.
Mela Miles, director of the T Riders Union at the Roxbury nonprofit Alternatives for Community and Environment, was frustrated that Baker did not allow the fare measure to stand.
“It’s dismissive. Insensitive. Out of touch with reality, in the middle of a pandemic when people have lost their jobs,” she said. “I wish he could be a little more connected to the people it was being done for, and understand how important that is and not just look at the bottom line.”
Baker also nixed $250 million in borrowing authorization for the Allston Massachusetts Turnpike megaproject, even though his administration has yet to come up with a plan to finance the $1.3 billion construction. Baker cited provisions in the borrowing authorization that he said “cannot be met.”
He did not detail which provisions, but the bill included requirements such as maintaining commuter rail service throughout construction, not raising tolls, and opening a new transit station early in the work schedule despite being located near what would essentially be a huge construction site.
Because lawmakers passed the bill in the closing hours of the last Legislative session, they do not have the opportunity to override Baker’s veto. Straus, the state representative, said he expects to discuss these issues again during the new session.