On the last day of their legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers agreed to allow the state to borrow billions of dollars to pay for transportation projects and match new federal infrastructure funds and finalized a climate bill that expands the state’s rebates for electric vehicles.
The $11.3 billion transportation bond bill — which includes approval for borrowing to fund East-West rail investments, MBTA safety fixes, and classifies electric bicycles — and the climate bill are now on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk. The governor has 10 days to sign or veto the legislation.
Many advocates described the bills as “a good start” but doubted they do enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions and get people out of vehicles — the largest source of the state’s emissions — to meet the state’s climate goals.
“These bills don’t quite meet the moment of throwing all of the state’s efforts forward to make a difference,” said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation.
The bond bill allows the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to borrow $400 million to meet current and upcoming directives of the Federal Transit Administration, which is investigating safety at the agency after a long series of terrifying incidents, and requires the agency to report safety incidents to the state’s inspector general.
The bond bill also allows the state to borrow $1.38 billion to fund various MBTA capital projects, including electrifying commuter rail lines, $2.81 billion for matching federal infrastructure funds for things like electric vehicle chargers, $1.27 billion for state road improvements, and $275 million for the East-West rail project to improve passenger service between Pittsfield and Boston.
Electric bicycles, long undefined in state law, are classified in the bond bill into Class 1 and Class 2, which provide a pedal-assist and throttle-assist up to 20 miles per hour, and allowed on bike paths. Lawmakers excluded Class 3 e-bikes, which have a pedal-assist motor up to 28 miles per hour. The bond bill also allows the state to borrow $1 million for the Department of Energy Resources to provide rebates on purchases of e-bikes of up to $500 for general consumers and $750 for low- and moderate-income consumers.
Both the transportation bond bill and the climate bill include mandates for reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, requiring the T to stop purchasing diesel locomotives for its commuter rail lines and fossil fuel-powered vehicles after 2030. Advocates hoped the Legislature would require the MBTA to further speed up the electrification of its bus fleet and require more air testing in environmental justice communities.
The climate bill ups the existing rebate for zero-emission vehicle purchases to $3,500, offers an additional $1,000 for people who trade in their gas-powered cars, and provides an additional $1,500 rebate to buyers with low incomes. The bill also extends the rebates to used vehicles and allows the state to offer them at the point of sale, instead of making buyers apply for them later, two changes adopted in other states and long sought by Massachusetts advocates.
Missing from the bond bill is a requirement that the MBTA implement a reduced fare for people with low incomes, a policy advocates have long pushed for and the Legislature approved before the pandemic but Baker vetoed.
Still missing is a new long-term revenue source for the MBTA, which estimates it will face a $236 million gap in its operating budget by next summer that could grow to $406 million the following year. The Legislature did approve a one-time $266 million reserve for the T to spend on FTA directives in its new fiscal year budget.
“I wouldn’t call this bold, ambitious, or strategic,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “We’re going to be looking for a lot more next session because this doesn’t solve any of the structural problems we’ve been bringing to the Legislature for years.”
Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, defended the decision to defer the low-income fare program, which the Senate supported. Straus said the bond bill allows for the MBTA and Regional Transit Authorities to borrow a total of $6.95 million to fund fare-free bus pilot programs.
“I don’t think anybody could be reading the news the last couple of weeks and think that the public confidence in having a safe ride on the T is anything but the No. 1 priority for the T and the Legislature on this subject,” he said, referring to the recent fire on an Orange Line train that sent riders fleeing frantically.
Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and cochair of the committee, said he is disappointed the low-income fare mandate didn’t make it into the bond bill.
“We need a transportation system that can be used by all riders; right now it’s not working for them,” he said. “Certainly we’ll have a new governor next year and we are hopeful they will look upon this more favorably.”
The bond bill sets up a commission to study and make recommendations for “public transportation pricing, roadway pricing and congestion pricing.” Straus said the results of that study could free up funding for the T down the road.