Can the business community solve the state’s transportation funding dilemma?
We may soon learn the answer to that multibillion-dollar question, an answer that could include an increase in the gas tax.
Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, House Speaker Bob DeLeo urged business interests to come together with one voice to present a plan that deals with the transportation issue.
Conveniently for DeLeo, those talks have already begun. Executives representing more than 20 chambers of commerce and other business groups across the state have started to meet, to spitball ideas. The hope is to reach a consensus around a slate of revenue-raising concepts to present to the Legislature later this year. They are also weighing possible private-sector solutions — and the best ways to spend any new money.
Alleviating congestion on roads and trains, of course, is the hot topic in and around Route 128. Transit riders want more frequency and reliability. Another focus: improving access for people outside this region to tap into its job engine. Think east-west commuter rail service in Springfield, or increased capacity at Worcester’s Union Station.
DeLeo’s speech came one day after the MBTA’s fiscal control board voted to raise subway and train fares by about 6 percent, come July 1. A coincidence, but an important one. The contentiousness of the fare hike might add more urgency to the debate.
The fare hike will raise nearly $30 million a year — roughly the equivalent of one extra penny on the gas tax. That’s pocket change compared to the backlog of work needed for our roads, buses, and trains.
A report from A Better City that’s making the rounds calls for $8 billion-plus in extra spending over 10 years just to get the T and road infrastructure into a “state of good repair.” A gas tax hike would certainly help: ABC estimates that an 11.5-cent increase would bring in nearly $4 billion in additional revenue over a decade.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to touch the gas tax in the past. The Legislature voted to raise it in 2013, for the first time in 20-plus years, by a meager three pennies per gallon.
(Massachusetts’ gas tax rate now ranks 30th among all states, according to the Tax Foundation.)
A business-backed provision that would have caused the tax to automatically rise with inflation was later repealed by voters, through a ballot question in 2014.
But DeLeo told reporters on Tuesday that everything should be on the table — including another gas tax hike.
That would be among the simplest revenue-raising changes to implement. Another idea gaining traction: raising the surcharge on Uber and Lyft trips beyond the state’s minimal 20 cents per ride. Representative Aaron Michlewitz, DeLeo’s new budget chief, says he’s open to the idea.
Other concepts would be more challenging, such as installing new toll-collecting gantries or adjusting existing ones to reflect time-of-day pricing. (Business groups, for the most part, remain cool to the idea of a so-called millionaires tax, a tax on incomes over $1 million.)
Greater Boston Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney has been helping shepherd the discussions among the various business constituencies. Rooney argues this needs to be a statewide effort to succeed. There is the political calculus, the counting of votes in the Legislature. There’s also the understanding that improving transportation throughout Massachusetts, and not just in the Boston area, is crucial to maintaining the state’s economic momentum.
Rooney hopes the various groups can come up with a proposal in time for the Legislature to act on some ideas this year, and others next year.
A wide-ranging agreement might not be easy. Everyone has pet projects and priorities. But at least all the participants agree on one thing: The current state of affairs shouldn’t be allowed to continue.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.