Richard A. Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, has done a lot of traveling in the last few weeks. He’ll tell you that himself, as he did at a Department of Transportation meeting earlier this month.
“North Andover, Woburn, Arlington, Hyannis,” Davey began. “Medford, Worcester, Framingham, Fall River, Wakefield, Burlington, and Plymouth.”
Since Governor Deval Patrick announced in January his plan to use new tax revenue to inject $13 billion into the state’s transportation system over the next decade, Davey has been crisscrossing the state.
His message: There’s something in the governor’s bill for everyone.
Patrick’s plan and a critical mass of political will has presented an opportunity to put the state’s roads, bridges, and public transit systems on solid footing for generations to come, proponents say.
While it appears the Legislature will fund some, but not all, of Patrick’s proposed projects, what ends up on the cutting-room floor may be a direct product of how well Davey and other transportation officials are able to deliver their message. Their aggressive outreach efforts have reached the feverish tone of an all-out election campaign, and has a Twitter hashtag: #ChooseGrowth.
“It’s really unprecedented,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, on Davey’s crusade. “In all my years, I don’t recall such a single-minded campaign by a nonelected state official.”
Some critics view the campaigning as a political ploy meant to convince residents with far-fetched transportation promises.
But others, like Marc Draisen , believe Davey’s strategy makes sense.
Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, an organization focused on city planning and transportation, said taxpayers need to be convinced that their tax dollars will translate into meaningful improvements — especially in a state still stinging from the legacy of the Big Dig and mistrustful of massive, costly transportation projects.
“They’ll go anywhere to talk about this subject,” Draisen said. “We’ve heard their basic line over and over: We can’t afford the transportation system we have, much less the transportation system we want.”
Davey must boil down an elaborate, 63-page report into simple selling points, tailor-made for each community he visits.
In Northampton: Want better regional bus service? Tell your representative you want tax increases.
In Stockbridge: Want a train running from the Berkshires to New York City? Ask your legislators for tax increases.
And in late January, at a transportation forum for the Metro-West region, Davey came prepared with numbers on how each town could tackle more bread-and-butter road repairs and pothole fixes.
A Wayland selectman in the audience raised his hand, asking how his town would benefit.
“I happen to have a Wayland statistic in front of me — how about that?” Davey said, prompting chuckles. Wayland’s funding for road projects, he said, would more than double to $700,000 per year.
And when Southborough’s economic development officer asked what his town stands to gain, Davey had an answer for him, too. Last year, Davey said, the town got $231,000 for road and bridge projects.
With Patrick’s plan, he said, the town would receive $650,000 per year.
“This is not just transportation dollars that are going to evaporate into the air,” Davey said. “These are specific projects and specific resources that we are going to deliver.”
Other transportation officials have also worked to deliver the message. After a frayed cable caused a large span of the Green Line to shut down on one of the coldest mornings of the year, Beverly A. Scott, MBTA general manager, asked technicians to save a portion of the frayed wire.
“I am going to take it on the road with me,” she said.
Sure enough, she appeared on TV a few days later, the corroded, mangled cable in hand.
“Literally, when you have something as old as this . . . the old girl just gave out,” Scott told Fox 25’s Doug “VB” Goudie . “You can’t sit up and have 5 or 6 billion dollars in terms of deferral of maintenance and infrastructure, and just have the expectation that these systems are going to operate with no additional investment.”
Stephanie Pollack, associate director at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said the campaign efforts could be criticized for focusing too heavily on grandiose new projects — expensive investments like the South Coast Rail — rather than the roughly 80 percent of the plan that will go toward bridge and road repair, paying off debts, and much-needed transit maintenance.
“In transportation, there is a long history of attracting support for new revenue by promising shiny new things and ribbon-cuttings,” Pollack said. “There probably was a bit of an emphasis on what [transportation officials] perceived would make people excited.”
Davey said he believes people are willing to pay more for better transportation opportunities — and according to research, he might be right.
A poll released March 14 by MassINC , a nonpartisan research group, estimated that just more than 60 percent of voters would be willing to pay $50 per year to fund long-term fixes for roads and public transportation, based on polls and focus groups over the past six months.
Of course, Davey’s campaign to sell the funding plan around the state has had its critics, perhaps none more biting than the Marblehead-based Citizens for Limited Taxation. A recent post on the organization’s website calls the efforts “a dog-and-pony show lining up interests who thrive off government spending.”
Barbara Anderson, the group’s executive director, said Patrick’s and Davey’s efforts to inspire enthusiasm in Massachusetts residents is part of a plan to raise expectations of how much taxes could rise, so a more modest increase would come as a relief.
“If they do something less than that, we’re all supposed to be incredibly grateful,” Anderson said.
Anderson argues the campaign has not convinced voters, and has instead targeted transportation advocacy groups who do not adequately represent the views of most Massachusetts residents.
“They go to every little group, and every little group is added to their long list of supporters who want a tax increase,” Anderson said, “even if some of these groups might be three AARP members in the far corner of the state.”
Promising large-scale products like South Coast Rail and trains from Boston to Springfield, she said, are gifts that may shore up support in communities outside of Boston, but will probably become mired in bureaucracy before they ever become a reality.
“You have a better chance of getting on a train to Hogwarts,” Anderson said, “than getting on a train to Fall River.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.