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Chesto Means Business

Transportation debate highlights differences in state’s business community

Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney knew geography could be a potential issue in the transportation debate — which is why he included groups from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.
Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney knew geography could be a potential issue in the transportation debate — which is why he included groups from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. Bill Brett for the Boston Globe

House Speaker Bob DeLeo made a bold request to the state’s business community in March: Come up with some transportation policies that everyone can unite behind.

Good luck with that one, Mr. Speaker.

Nearly 30 business groups from across the state have huddled for months, essentially to heed that noble call, with the results becoming public Wednesday, a few weeks ahead of the big transportation debate in the Massachusetts House. On its face, there’s a semblance of unity. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce reported near-unanimous support for some kind of increase in government-controlled revenue, provided the additional money is paired with structural reforms, to address the state’s numerous road and public transit woes.

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But reaching a consensus on the particulars has proved to be more elusive. Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney, who shepherded these talks, initially strove for unanimity on a package of solutions that these disparate groups from across the state could endorse. In the end, Rooney and his colleagues opted instead to release an “a la carte” menu of options, each with varying levels of support.

A strong majority of participants polled by the chamber backed an increase in fees on Uber and Lyft rides, and the creation of a tolling task force to study time-of-day pricing and new locations for electronic gantries. But a proposed increase in the gas tax proved more divisive. A smaller majority of the business groups that participated in the poll backed some increase in the gas tax; the Greater Boston Chamber suggested a 15-cents-a-gallon increase and others supported something in that range. But others don’t want the gas tax raised at all.

For example, Associated Industries of Massachusetts rejected the gas tax and chose to back the Baker administration by supporting its $18 billion bond bill, which includes a number of systemic reforms to the state’s transportation bureaucracy, and a multistate charge on fuel aimed at curbing vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions, nicknamed “TCI.” But the money from TCI is years away, and in the interim, AIM argues the state doesn’t need other new revenues to improve transportation. The Mass. High Technology Council took a similar stance.  Ditto the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

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Eight of the 28 participating groups didn’t end up responding to Rooney’s poll. And the National Federation of Independent Business chose not to even participate from the start. State director Chris Carlozzi said his group was worried the end result of all these meetings would be new fees or taxes. NFIB hates that idea. Some of its roughly 5,500 small-business members here struggle to get by.

Part of the issue is geography. NFIB and AIM members are spread throughout the state, many far from the nearest T stop, and are less alarmed by Red Line derailments and Orange Line shutdowns than the Boston-focused groups.

Rooney recognized this could be a potential issue when he started these talks last winter — which is why he included groups from all corners, from Cape Cod to the Berkshires. He knows he needs statewide support for an ambitious agenda to succeed at the State House. Some of these far-flung groups signed on, but not everyone.

The coalition’s members met with DeLeo and with Senate President Karen Spilka in August to brief them on the progress. Soon after those two meetings, Rooney says, it became clear that the typical business-group statement, in which everyone involved endorses it, would not be in the offing.

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Even a smaller, separate group orchestrated by the Kendall Square Association and the left-leaning Alliance for Business Leadership couldn’t reach an agreement on everything. The Kendall Square crew issued a statement calling for an 18-cent increase to the gas tax, time-of-day toll prices, and new fees on ride-share trips. Missing in action: the Alliance. That board decided it couldn’t sign on because it would only endorse a plan that also included the millionaires tax. This surcharge on high-earners will likely go to voters in 2022 as a constitutional amendment, although it has been doggedly opposed by many business groups.

So much for unity.

But Representative Bill Straus, the House transportation committee chairman, says he actually prefers to receive a diversity of thought as House leaders hammer out a transportation bill in time for a floor debate expected in the third week of November.

Sometimes, Straus says, when coalitions try to unite behind grand statements, minority views get silenced. That could mean lawmakers end up with less input, not more. One thing’s for sure: they won’t be lacking for ideas and opinions from the business community this time around.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.