Governor Baker calls for $18b boost in transit, road funding
Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday proposed attacking the state’s longstanding transportation shortcomings with a sprawling $18 billion plan that offers tax credits to telecommuters, additional dedicated lanes for transit buses, an MBTA expansion, and projects to reduce congestion on local streets.
The plan includes almost $5.7 billion for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which would pay for a major overhaul of the T’s bus routes, the purchase of low- and zero-emission vehicles and as many as 200 double-decker cars for the commuter rail, and preparations for rising sea levels.
If enacted, Baker said, the proposal would add almost 100,000 seats to state’s transit system over time, improving its “reach and reliability.” Of those, 85,000 seats will come from new Orange and Red line cars that were ordered several years ago, and are scheduled to be fully in service by 2023.
“We understand that our residents are frustrated by congested roads. And we understand that for MBTA and commuter rail riders, the system is only as good as the last time their trip was delayed,” Baker said Thursday. “We are committed to making faster progress on these issues because they matter to us all.”
The so-called transportation bond bill would allow the state to borrow money for years of improvements to both the roads and rails, and includes many projects the Baker administration had already identified as priorities before the latest troubles, such as an overhaul of the bus network, vehicle purchases, and improvements to the roadways around the Cape Cod Canal bridges.
In previous years, these measures rarely attracted much attention outside of Beacon Hill. But the recent crisis surrounding the T over the June derailment on the Red Line, as well as the seemingly worsening traffic congestion, has injected a sense of urgency to fix problems that have been building for decades.
Baker has come under fire for his oversight of the T in particular and his refusal to entertain a tax increase or other new revenues to improve transit service, saying the agency is already tackling an ambitious menu of fixes.
Well before the Red Line derailment in June, the T was spending hundreds of millions of dollars replacing the aging, failure-prone subway signaling system that has contributed to many of the routine delays experienced by commuters. The T was also preparing to introduce new cars for the Red, Orange, and Green lines, replacing some vehicles that are nearly 50 years old.
In June for example, Baker said of fixing the T: “We want to make sure we get it right. I wish we could install it all tomorrow. We can’t. But I believe we’re heading in the right direction on that stuff.”
But even his sometime allies have split with the governor after the Red Line derailment again exposed how vulnerable the system is. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has come out forcefully against the 6 percent T fare hike that went into effect July 1, saying the government should hold off asking commuters to pay more until the lengthy delays caused by the derailment are eliminated.
And on Beacon Hill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has promised to debate a measure on transportation funding this fall, and some lawmakers say they want to raise taxes over Baker’s objection.
And even at $18 billion, some advocates found Baker’s proposal wanting.
Chris Dempsey, president of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said in a phone interview that the bill is a “good effort” by the Baker administration, but “it’s clear from a review of this bill that there’s a lot more work to do.”
For his part, Baker showed a willingness to commit new money to the cause by proposing to fund many of the transportation improvements with money from a new fee on fuels that is part of a regionwide effort to curb pollution from vehicles. A group of northeastern states have formed a compact, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative, and are still deliberating how best to set the emission levels and related fees. Baker expects work on his bond bill to coincide with the climate initiative work.
A special transportation commission appointed by Baker last year estimated the fees could generate anywhere from $150 million to $500 million, depending on the emissions model adopted by the states in the compact. Motorists would pay $2 to $7 a month.
Among the more novel suggestions in the bond bill is Baker’s proposal for a $2,000 tax credit for employees who telecommute or work remotely, to help reduce the number of people who currently drive to work and add to the region’s infamous congestion.
“Nationally, there has been an increase in the proportion of workers who work from home, but telecommuting is not as prevalent in Massachusetts,” Baker said Thursday.
But Stacy Thompson, executive director of the advocacy group Livable Streets, questioned whether the telecommuter credit is really that effective.
“We’re pretty skeptical of the telecommuter tax credits,” she said, adding, “It doesn’t actually have any good co-benefits. I think the governor is shooting himself in the foot a bit.”
Other measures Baker has proposed to address congestion include $50 million for communities to eliminate bottlenecks on local roads, such as through new traffic signaling technology and redesigned intersections. The legislation also includes a measure that would allow authorities to quickly tow a disabled vehicle involved in a crash out of a travel lane in order to minimize disruption.
However, as he has before, Baker declined to include in his proposal a congestion pricing mechanism that aims to push motorists out of their cars and onto public transit by charging them higher tolls to drive during rush hour.
Dempsey, for one, said Baker missed an opportunity.
“We do think we are in a congestion crisis,” Dempsey said. “The Federal Highway Administration says the single best tool is congestion pricing.”