The business community may be divided on a gas tax hike, but the mayors around Greater Boston are embracing a relatively big one.
Three coalitions of mayors and town managers — representing the top officials from more than 45 communities — issued statements Wednesday calling for a 15-cent increase in the gas tax, to help subsidize a massive overhaul in the state’s road and transit networks. This is the first time that a group of elected officials has weighed in during the state’s transportation debate. It probably won’t be the last.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s leadership team had wanted to hold a floor debate next week on transportation revenue sources: the gas tax, Uber and Lyft fees, tolling, and the like. (Spending bills, such as this one, need to originate in the House.) But the leadership has not put forth an actual bill yet. With a Nov. 20 adjournment scheduled, it becomes more likely that the House debate gets pushed to 2020, an election year for the Legislature.
Meanwhile, reports from various constituencies on this issue are piling up, like rush hour trains at South Station. The latest one comes via the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, working on behalf of three municipal associations. There’s the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, representing 15 cities and towns within and along Route 128, including Boston. There’s the North Shore Coalition, representing 18 communities from Ipswich south to Lynn. And there’s the Commuter Rail Communities Coalition, a loosely knit group that has some overlap with the other two coalitions.
In all, the planning council said 45-plus mayors and town managers endorsed the 15-cent gas tax hike during the past two months, with the potential to raise an extra $450 million a year. It’s not the only transportation revenue source these local officials support — ride-hailing fees and expanded tolls are in there, too. But it’s arguably the most controversial.
One poll conducted in August on behalf of the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition found only 11 percent of voters endorse adding 15 cents to the state’s gas tax. Another poll around that time, for the MassINC think tank, showed an unspecified gas tax increase garnered support from 26 percent.
Worth noting: these municipal leaders are from Eastern Massachusetts, where the T’s delays and disasters pose regular headaches. A gas tax is a tougher sell out west, where just about every commuter drives to work.
If legislative leaders advance a gas tax, they would want a two-thirds majority, to override a potential veto from Governor Charlie Baker. Several business groups agree with Baker and want to stick for now with his $18 billion transportation bond bill alongside a multistate fee to curb vehicles’ carbon emissions. (The carbon fee is still in conceptual form.)
The mayors generally say the bond bill and that carbon charge, known as TCI, are fine — necessary, even. But they are not enough to remove our creaky transit system’s constraints. Their general theme: Greater Boston’s economic success is at risk if the congestion problem — recently deemed by one group the worst gridlock in the country — can’t be solved.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, chairman of the metro mayors group, pointed to the fact that most states have higher gas taxes. Ours has only been raised by three pennies in nearly three decades. (The Tax Foundation ranks us 31 st, at 26.5 cents a gallon, when all fuel-related taxes and fees are calculated.) It’s time, Curtatone said, for a bold solution to a bold problem.
To Lynn Mayor Tom McGee, a massive infusion of cash is needed to electrify the diesel-fueled commuter rail system, to provide subway-like service frequencies. The MBTA’s oversight board voted last week to start down that track, but it will need billions of dollars to pull it off.
Electric trains would be welcome news to Yvonne Spicer, Framingham’s mayor. Spicer said her city’s economy is threatened if people can’t move around. The Worcester commuter rail line through her city needs a dramatic overhaul, she said, to make it cleaner and more frequent. She complained about taking an hour and 15 minutes to get to Boston by car for a meeting on Wednesday, an 18-mile trip. But for many regular MetroWest commuters, that’s what passes for a good morning on the Pike.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief Jim Rooney welcomes the support, saying it validates the chamber’s call for a 15-cent gas tax increase as part of a broader revenue-and-reform package to help make public transit more reliable and trustworthy.
Other business groups want a bigger hike. Some want a smaller one. And some don’t want it touched at all.
For gas-tax proponents, it’s helpful to get positive reinforcement from the mayors. But they’re not the ones who ultimately need to vote. The tougher challenge: persuading enough state lawmakers to climb on board.