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Mass. tax hike on the table for roads and transit

Nearly six years after a bipartisan commission sounded the alarm about a transportation system in a crisis so severe that it carried a shortfall of nearly $1 billion a year, Governor Deval Patrick will ask lawmakers to solve the problem with a plan that includes higher taxes.

By Jan. 7, the administration will deliver a proposal calling for robust taxes and more precisely detailing the gap between what is currently spent and what is needed to bring the state's roads, bridges, and transit systems into good condition and keep them there. Lawmakers called for the plan last June in the emergency legislation that balanced the T's budget for the year.


The shortfall could be reduced by raising the long-frozen gas tax, tolls, or other taxes and fees.

"At this point, everything remains on the table," said state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey, in an interview after a recent stop on a statewide tour meant partly to prepare the public for what is to come.

He avoided citing specific taxes or putting a dollar value on the gap, except to call the 2007 report of the independent Transportation Finance Commission , which estimated it at $15 billion to $19 billion over 20 years, an accurate starting point.

An unsustainable reliance on borrowing helped mask highway problems and allowed the T to go five years between fare increases, but bridges, rails, signals, stations, and other infrastructure continue to age faster than the state can repair or replace them.

The gas tax has remained 21 cents a gallon since 1991, except for a 2.5 cent increase imposed to clean up underground contaminants. That means it has lost buying power against inflation and as cars have become more efficient, even as costs such as fuel, asphalt, and employee health insurance have soared. The state sales tax, the T's largest funding source, has fallen short of projections through multiple recessions and as consumers sidestepped taxes online.


The Patrick administration, which tried unsuccessfully to raise the gas tax in 2009, signaled earlier this year that it may revisit that tax. Other options include taxing miles driven, tapping future casino revenue, and transferring MBTA debt to the state's books.

While the administration refines that plan, a new poll of 1,500 residents from the Berkshires to the Cape shows 62 percent are willing to spend $50 or more in additional taxes to bolster transportation. The poll also found that residents far beyond Boston value transit as well as road investment.

But the MassINC poll revealed that 71 percent believe the transportation red ink is a result of "waste and mismanagement," not insufficient funding — a belief at odds with conclusions of an array of analysts, activists, and policy makers.

"There's clearly a major misperception out there," said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

"There's no question that we could take the money we have and spend it better . . . [but] no amount of better performance could come close to filling the gap between what we should be spending and what we are spending."

Lawmakers partially addressed the issue three years ago, adopting some recommendations of the Transportation Finance Commission in merging several agencies into a streamlined Department of Transportation, asking employees to shoulder more health insurance costs, and tightening MBTA pension rules.


The T now wrings more money out of advertising and real estate and provides more service with fewer employees than a decade ago.

The 2009 legislative mantra in rejecting the gas tax was "reform before revenue," though lawmakers approved a sales tax increase, part of which went to transportation. But new revenue cannot be avoided forever, Davey said.

"We will do anything . . . legal and reasonable to save money and improve our cost structure and the customer experience, and I don't think that has always been the case," he said.

Before a crowd of 70 in Mattapan Thursday, Davey spent two hours listening to residents describe the importance of transportation in their lives and how it falls short locally: a rail link to downtown, the Fairmount Line, with a byzantine fare structure and no weekend service; an absence of bike paths; sluggish bus service.

Davey sought support for the looming proposal to benefit the economy and quality of life.

"We're at a crossroads in transportation for either a renaissance or a rollback," he said. "Once we give a plan to our partners in the Legislature about how we finance what we heard tonight, that's when we really need you to rise up."

The MassINC poll grew from the same impulse that led the think tank to organize a 2010 conference for leaders of the nation's largest transit agencies, which illustrated that the T's shortfalls were not unique.

"We as a country have struggled with how to strike the right balance between financing roads and financing transit. We've struggled with tax revenue generally in a 30-year period of tax revolts, and we need to get people to work every day, and we need to keep our roads maintained," said Greg Torres, MassINC president.


He said the percentage blaming "waste" means "we still have a little work to do, and that should be part of the conversation we have over the next year." Lawmakers have promised to hold that conversation, starting with Patrick's plan.

"If we want to keep Massachusetts as a competitive state economically, so that it's a state that people want to move to and businesses want to locate in, we have an obligation to deal with this, and we don't have a lot of time," said Representative William M. Straus , House chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.