Governor Charlie Baker vowed that, if reelected, he’ll deliver a “much better” MBTA built on a multiyear, $8 billion investment plan, with a promise to find more resources if needed.
His Democratic challenger, Jay Gonzalez, said if he’s successful on Nov. 6, revamping public transportation, including a commitment to expansion, will be a top priority. And it’s “going to take money” — more than Baker’s investing, he said.
The contrast was just one of several the two delivered Thursday in a pair of forums, where questions ricocheted between transportation, gas pipelines, climate resiliency, and some of the state’s most pressing energy and environmental issues.
Baker and Gonzalez both stressed the importance of combating climate change and greasing the skids for more sustainable solutions, such as more electric cars on the roads. But they also cut clear lines of distinctions, perhaps none more so than on the T, where Baker has resisted calls to funnel more tax revenue into the system and Gonzalez has built his campaign on a pledge to seek billions in new taxes to fund investments.
“If we need to hire people, if we need more resources to hit that $8 billion and deliver on that five-year plan, we will find them,” said Baker, who’s emphasized the millions his administration has spent on basic infrastructure in the system. At one point he said he felt like “Ahab and the whale when it comes to the T.”
“This is boring and it is not interesting, but it is fundamental to actually creating an MBTA that works,” he said.
Gonzalez, who has proposed hitting wealthy colleges with a tax to generate $1 billion for transportation and education, said the focus should be not just on shoring up the system but also expanding it to pull people out of cars and off the roads.
“We’ve got to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.
The forums at the Museum of Science — which included questions from moderator Bruce Mohl, the editor of CommonWealth Magazine, and several state environmental groups — provided Baker an opportunity to flash his wonkish side with answers about the number of trees his administration has planted and energy legislation that authorized the state to procure massive wind and hydroelectric contracts.
It was Gonzalez, though, who drew a warmer response at times, including sustained applause when he pledged to do “everything in my power to stop the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in this state.”
The answer, and its tone, drew a sharp contrast from Baker. Both he and Gonzalez agreed that the next administration should focus on repairing existing infrastructure in the wake of the gas explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley last month.
But Baker did not commit to opposing any new gas pipelines, despite twice being pressed.
“I really think the focus for the next few years needs to be on the existing infrastructure and ensuring that it’s safe,” Baker said.
Baker and Gonzalez also laid out other differences. Baker, who pledged as a candidate in 2014 to commit 1 percent of state spending to the environment, delivered a mea culpa to the audience, saying between balancing an early budget shortfall and other priorities, he didn’t deliver.
“I apologize for not delivering on my promise,” Baker said. “We didn’t get this one done.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, pointed to a pin stuck to his left lapel that read “1 percent For The Environment” — an illustration of his pledge to reach that goal by the end of his first term, if elected.
Mohl noted that environmental funding was criticized as falling short under the Patrick administration, too, including during Gonzalez’s 3½-year tenure as then-Governor Deval Patrick’s budget chief.
Gonzalez said there was a difference between the administrations: Patrick served during the depths of, and in the recovery from, a recession, while Baker has governed during a "sustained period of economic growth,” he said.
“I’m not Deval Patrick. I’m Jay Gonzalez,” he said. “I am running for governor now based on my agenda, and I’m telling you what I’m going to do as governor. And this is a priority for me.”
The question, however, did provide areas of agreement. Both targeted the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Recreation as agencies in need of funding and additional staff. And Baker said, if reelected, he expects to “make some investments” in the number of inspectors at the Department of Public Utilities, which has oversight over the state’s pipelines.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.