Last week, Governor Charlie Baker stepped out of his comfort zone to deliver a much-anticipated transportation bond bill that would authorize $18 billion in spending on everything from South Coast rail to bus-only lanes.
For a Republican who favors small government and judicious spending, it was a big response to the growing hue and cry for more revenue to fix the MBTA and ease congestion, because Bostonians can’t get there from anywhere anymore.
But is this the transformational investment strategy that everyone has been waiting for?
“It’s likely these funds still won’t go far enough,” said Rick Dimino, the president of A Better City, a business organization that released a report earlier this year detailing why the state will need more revenue for transportation.
Absent, for example, from the long list of projects: A game-changing Red-Blue Line connector that would link the two branches by extending the Blue Line tunnel under Cambridge Street to the Charles/MGH Station on the Red Line.
“The question is: Is it enough money for what? To deliver a 21st century transportation system, perhaps not,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “Does it fund the capital investment plan and put us on the way? Yes.”
Bond bills allow the state to borrow money to fund projects. That doesn’t mean the projects actually get done; in fact, projects typically are carried over from one cycle to the next.
A chunk of Baker’s bill, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, consists of re-upping approvals to borrow money that the state has not yet gotten around to spending, such as $825 million for South Coast rail, $595 million for the Green Line extension, $70 million for small municipal bridges, and $20 million for the “complete streets” program, which encourages travel by foot or bike.
One thing’s for sure: The Baker proposal is jump-starting the debate on Beacon Hill over how much more money our transportation system really needs, whether borrowing the money is the way to go, and whether the Commonwealth needs to generate additional revenue, such as by increasing the gasoline tax.
“I don’t think the complete answer is ‘We’re just going to borrow this,’ said Representative Bill Straus, who is the House chair on the Joint Committee on Transportation. “You can’t kick the can down the road. It means somewhere in the future we don’t have money coming in.”
“I don’t think it was Baker’s intention,” added Straus. “He has basically filed a transportation financing bill that the Legislature needs to take up. We may have a different way in mind.”
That may be the case, but for now let’s give the governor some credit.
His bond bill keeps up the ground game on transit, roads, and bridges. The highlights include $4 billion for a new, accelerated bridge program; $330 million for regional transit authorities to invest in bus fleets and facilities; $50 million to create bus-only lanes and other transit-related infrastructure; and $50 million to help reduce bottlenecks on secondary roads.
There’s even $350 million to improve the approaches to the Bourne and Sagamore bridges over the Cape Cold Canal.
The governor’s bill also goes on the offense by promoting nontraditional modes of transportation, including by proposing $100 million for bicycle and pedestrian networks and $25 million for water ferry terminal construction.
And if you’re wondering whether the infusion will cut in half the 13-year backlog of maintenance repairs at the MBTA, well, no. But it will almost certainly speed up some repairs: The bond bill contains measures to streamline the procurement process and better integrate design work with construction.
On the policy front, Baker has doubled down on transit while protecting the environment by commiting up to half of the revenue generated from programs such as the Transportation and Climate Initiative to pay for transit capital improvements that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative, being developed with other Northeastern states, aims to set strict emissions levels and charge a new fee on fuels to curb pollution from vehicles.
In essence, Baker’s full-throated support for the initiative is his answer to where to find significant new revenue for the MBTA. And if any part of the bond bill has a shot at being transformational, it’s this section.
Far from transformational is the telecommuting tax credit. Baker’s bill would give employers a tax break to encourage more employees to telecommute. Many — myself included — are skeptical that this would ease congestion. A lot of employers already allow at-home work, at least part time. This could end up being less of a behavior-changing incentive and more of a tax giveaway to companies that have offered telecommuting for years.
Let’s also hope the Baker administration doesn’t tout the telecommuting program as a reason not to explore congestion pricing, a system that charges higher tolls during rush hour (thus encouraging people to commute at off-peak times).
The bottom line is that Baker’s bill isn’t going to turn your grueling commute into a breezy excursion, but the proposal is a solid starting point. For sure, it will make us think more seriously about what a modern transportation system should look like — and how we’re going to afford it.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.