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Mass. Senate OK’s $800 million transportation bill

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Saturday to approve a transportation finance bill that would funnel more than $800 million into the state’s transit agencies by fiscal 2018 in what seemed a compromise between packages proposed by House legislators and Governor Deval Patrick in recent weeks.

Democrat legislators who voted for the bill sought to offer a more amped-up version of the $500 million House bill, passed Monday, by finding revenue sources that would not require further tax increases.

In addition to redirecting money from a little-known gas tax fund for underground storage tanks and requiring contracts between the state Transportation Department and utility companies, the Senate also voted Saturday to require that transportation and MBTA officials issue a request for proposals on licensing the naming rights to subway, bus, and commuter rail stations.

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After the 30-5 vote, Patrick expressed mixed feelings on the bill.

“Today’s Senate bill is a significant step in that direction and I commend them for their work,” he said in a statement. But, he continued, “it is concerning that some of the resources in this bill are diverted from current spending on other needs.”

But Senator Thomas M. McGee, cochairman of the Joint Transportation Committee, said he considered the bill a success.

“I feel good about what we’ve done today,” McGee said, “but it’s an ongoing issue that we need to focus on every year.”

The transportation finance package is far from settled. The bill will move on to a joint conference committee before it makes its way to the governor’s desk. But it’s a coup for Patrick, who was angered when the House proposed a package he deemed too small, threatening a veto and urging legislators to tack other sources of revenue onto the bill.

Patrick suggested earlier this week that he would not veto a transportation finance package close to the halfway point between his and the House’s proposals.

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The Senate bill, which was debated in a rare Saturday session because many legislators will be on vacation next week, called for the same revenue sources in the House version: a 3-cent gas tax, a $1 tax on cigarettes, and $244 million in utility and business-related computer fees.

But the Senate version also rerouted a little-known 2.5-cent gas tax originally dedicated to underground storage tank cleanups. And the bill established a consistent process for the Transportation Department and the MBTA to enter into leases with telecommunications and utility companies that use their property.

Those additional funds could be used for capital projects such as the South Coast Rail, a South Station expansion, the extension of the Green Line, and new cars to replace the MBTA’s aging fleet — though the extra cash would not be nearly enough to fund all of them.

According to a study by Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, the Senate version provides about $265 million in fiscal 2014 — just $5 million less than Patrick’s proposal prescribed — but ramps up less steeply than the governor’s plan, reaching $805 million per year in 2018, rather than the governor’s $1.1 billion.

Over the next five years, the Senate’s plan would allocate $600 million per year on average in new revenue to transportation, short of the average $800 million Patrick’s plan would have provided, according to the Dukakis Center.

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Some transportation advocates worry that legislators’ estimates on the measures included in the Senate plan could prove to be less lucrative than suggested on the Senate floor.

“The difference between the Senate and the House bill is really not that huge,” said Rafael Mares, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, a transportation and environmental advocacy organization. “It’s a little bit like a blanket that’s too small, and you’re not sure what part of the body is going to be covered.”

Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Democrat of Barre and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, praised members of the Senate for their work on trying to find a compromise in a politically tense environment.

“There’s been a lot of emotion and a serious case of hard-ball politics during the last couple of weeks,” Brewer said.

That combustible environment became evident when dozens of antitax protesters, fired up from a rally on Boston Common, filed into the State House and burst into applause and hoots when Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr lambasted his fellow legislators for supporting tax increases.

“But the question is, Madam President, what is enough, and when will it ever be enough?” Tarr yelled.

The protesters erupted into chants of “No more taxes!” and were escorted out of the gallery by State House police.

The Senate’s bill closes operating budget gaps for the MBTA next year, and requires that the Department of Transportation transfer personnel costs from its capital budget to its operating budget in the next three years.

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The bill would allow the state’s 15 regional transit authorities — bus systems that serve communities outside of the MBTA’s reach — to pay their yearly budgets in advance, rather than borrowing their operating costs each year. The regional transit authorities would also receive an additional $12 million per year in funding — an 18 percent increase over what they currently receive.

Senators also voted to pass an amendment that would reinstate tolls on the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which had been eliminated in the 1990s. The revenue would be directed exclusively to transportation projects in that part of the state.

Many of the amendments focused on pushing for accountability within the state’s transportation agencies.

The legislation mandates that the MBTA conduct a review of fare collection policies; the Transportation Department publish job titles and salaries of employees moved onto the operating budget; regional transit authorities publish annual ridership data; and officials interview the 23 companies that expressed interest in bidding on the state’s gargantuan commuter rail contract, but did not ultimately submit.

The Senate rejected a proposal to establish a special legislative task force to hunt for cost-saving measures within the MBTA.

One of the most heated debates came on a further increase to the gas tax, as well as MBTA naming rights, with legislators arguing that they were fearful the amendment would result in “Dunkin’ Donuts Copley Station.”

“What is the price tag that we can appropriately put on our history, on our identity as a state, and on our identity as a public sector?” asked Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat of Boston.

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Others, such as Senator Michael F. Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat, maintained that considering the dire financial situation of the state Transportation Department and the T, every possible revenue source that did not tax residents had to be pursued — even the painful options.

Rush said naming rights contracts would be pursued at the less-historic stations and stops within the T and commuter rail system.

“We do not have the luxury of turning our back on easy money,” Rush said.

The Senate voted down two amendments, one to increase and one to decrease the growth rate of the 3-cent gas tax, and rebuffed a proposal that would legalize fireworks in Massachusetts.


Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.