Governor Deval Patrick launched a public campaign Monday to win support for raising taxes to repair and reinvigorate the state’s beleaguered transportation system, seeking Beacon Hill approval for $1.02 billion a year in new or higher taxes and fees dedicated to transportation.
In a sign of a shifting political landscape, legislative leaders acknowledged that more money is needed to shore up the state’s transportation system and that they are open to discussing tax increases, a nonstarter in previous efforts to address the long-simmering transportation funding crisis.
“We all agree something has to be done,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said, after he and Senate President Therese Murray emerged from an hourlong, closed-door meeting with Patrick.
DeLeo said lawmakers would take a close look at how Patrick wants to spend that money, how much may be raised, and how to raise it.
With that debate looming, Patrick laid out a menu of tax and fee possibilities, but saved his own preferences for Wednesday’s State of the Commonwealth address and the proposed budget he will submit to lawmakers next week. Among the menu options were a hike in the gas tax; increased tolls; and stiffer fees on vehicles that emit more pollution or are driven farther.
Patrick sought to set up the debate by making a case for investment in the name of economic vitality and quality of life, warning that inaction or insufficient action could prove dire.
“What’s as plain as day is we have choices to make,” he said. “We can choose to invest in ourselves, to invest in a growth strategy that has proven time and again to work, or we can choose to do nothing. But let’s be clear and honest with each other: Choosing to do nothing is a choice, too, and that choice has consequences.”
In a presentation earlier in the day at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Patrick unveiled what analysts and advocates considered perhaps the fullest accounting ever of the state’s transportation red ink, coupling plans to balance annual budgets with targeted spending on infrastructure, mostly to fix and modernize highway and transit systems.
The Legislature, which in the past has looked skeptically at higher taxes for transportation while embracing a “reform before revenue” policy, called last June for Patrick to document the system’s needs and explore funding options. The directive came as lawmakers provided a one-time cash infusion to help avoid widespread cuts and larger fare increases than the ones that eventually took effect last summer.
The result Monday was a 63-page document dubbed “The Way Forward” and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation that was both wonky and frank for a state that has avoided raising the gas tax since 1991.
Patrick called the findings “stark, clear-eyed, nonpartisan, and, above all, fact-based.”
Transportation-minded lawmakers and municipal leaders who packed the front rows at his UMass Boston presentation responded enthusiastically, promising to take the case to Beacon Hill.
“We’re out in full force,” said Mayor Kimberly Driscoll of Salem, president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, citing the critical role smooth roads, sturdy bridges, and timely and reliable transit play in making any city or town attractive to residents and businesses. “There’s never an appetite for new revenues, but I hope and believe people can recognize this is not a problem we can walk away from or take small bites at.”
At the State House, legislative leaders said new revenue must be accompanied by cost-cutting and intend to hold the debate this year, knowing next year is an election year.
DeLeo said the governor’s tax or fee proposals will “take quite a bit of time and discussion,” but said lawmakers will be excited by the possibility of bringing new transportation projects to their districts.
Patrick’s “Way Forward” plan contained something for everyone, from the Berkshires to the Cape. It includes, for example, rebuilding the Interstate 91 viaduct in Springfield, replacing the I-93/I-95 interchange in Woburn, and assembling new Red and Orange Line cars at plants employing Massachusetts workers. Murray called the proposal ambitious.
“We have to figure out what’s in here first, and we’ll digest it,” she said. “I know we need to do something.”
Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat and Senate chairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said he hopes lawmakers will support increased transportation funding, years after nonpartisan analysts first agreed that the crisis was too big to be solved through cuts and would require substantial new revenue.
“The key piece is making the case for how important this is, and I think we’re getting to that place,” McGee said after attending Patrick’s presentation.
Patrick considers transportation a legacy issue and has been laying groundwork for years, an effort he intensified last week by announcing proposals intended to streamline government and cut costs.
Those proposals would slash regulations for businesses, called for consolidating local housing authorities into regional entities, and aimed to save $20 billion in retiree health costs over three decades.
House Republican leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. called the governor’s presentation “very disheartening.”
He and Senate Republican leader Bruce E. Tarr said GOP lawmakers will be hesitant to support higher taxes and that the governor has yet to persuade them that $1 billion in additional annual spending is needed.
But some advocates thought the governor’s plan did not include enough new projects, leaving proposals such as the Urban Ring transit loop and a North Station-South Station connection in mothballs.
More than half the proposed $1 billion annually would help balance highway and transit budgets, relieve some MBTA debt, run buses at night and on weekends in cities such as Springfield, and end a practice of borrowing for basic highway operations such as mowing and striping.
The rest would cover initial payments on what the state considers good debt, borrowing to double infrastructure spending to $25 billion over the next decade.