For policy makers juggling two crises, the state’s gas pumps could ultimately provide a ripe resource to help fund Massachusetts’ transportation needs and its long-running fight against climate change.
But that shared interest has created another possibility: Motorists could actually absorb not one, but two types of increases in gas prices to help pay for it all.
While the Legislature considers a hike to the gas tax as part of a transportation financing package, Governor Charlie Baker has for months pursued a separate, multistate effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions that his administration acknowledges also will likely increase gas prices, perhaps by as early as 2022.
Baker may not need legislative approval to commit Massachusetts to that program known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI. And the Legislature, should it embrace a gas tax hike as some business groups have called for, would likely have enough support within its ranks to override Baker’s own objections to such an increase.
How much extra drivers will pay if both proposals are realized is unclear. But they are playing out amid a larger discussion over how, and to what degree, to infuse the state’s transit network with additional cash.
Baker, a Republican who opposes a “big increase” in the gas tax, is seeking with other states to curb carbon pollution through TCI, which would require fuel distributors to buy pollution permits for some of the carbon they produce. That effort, his top transportation adviser is arguing, could ultimately be undercut should lawmakers simultaneously push a tax hike through at the pumps.
Stephanie Pollack, Baker’s transportation secretary, questioned Friday whether it’s “politically feasible” that the state could pursue both.
“TCI is not a gas tax, but to the consumer, it comes across as an increase,” Pollack said at a transportation forum in Norwood. “The concern that we have is that there is a substantial increase in the gas tax now as part of the revenue conversation, and then TCI kicks in and gas prices start going up to fund that program.”
That, she said, “could undermine our ability to get TCI done.”
Those who support raising the gas tax disagree, arguing that the separate climate pact is far from a done deal and that even if, or when, it happens, the state’s wobbly transportation infrastructure needs a more urgent infusion of revenue.
There also are questions of how much revenue the climate initiative could generate. Pollack said Friday that officials are still analyzing the impact of the cap-and-invest program, with the goal of releasing the results in December. They have targeted the spring for producing a final memo for the 12 participating states and Washington, D.C. to sign, with the program potentially starting as early as 2022.
Meanwhile, House leaders have been discussing for months a still-undefined transportation financing bill with the goal of bringing it to the floor before the Legislature plans to recess on Nov. 20.
A gas tax hike remains deeply unpopular with voters, according to a new poll conducted on behalf of the advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts, which has argued any increase should come with changes to how businesses are also taxed.
“If there was an increase in the gas tax and the TCI were to pass, without that shared responsibility by the corporate community, it would be an injustice for the working families of this state,” said Steve Crawford, a spokesman for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of labor unions, religious organizations, and liberal advocacy groups.
But legislators have touted the benefits a higher gas tax can provide. Supporters note that the current 24-cent excise lags those in nearly every state in New England, with New Hampshire being the lone exception.
Representative William M. Straus of Mattapoisett, House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, said Pollack’s argument that a gas tax hike could sap political support for TCI is “difficult to assess” without knowing how much the regional program will impact gas prices.
“I believe the immediacy of the issue requires that the Legislature tackle transportation funding now,” said Straus, who has regularly promoted increasing the gas tax as a way to raise new money. Asked if the House still intends to produce a bill before Thanksgiving, Straus said lawmakers are “going to do the best we can.”
“In the end, I’m hopeful that we will have a transportation financing package to send over to the Senate,” he said.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka has been less committal about the chamber taking up similar legislation, pointing to ongoing talks within a Senate study group on the issue.
Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the chamber’s transportation chair, framed it with more urgency Friday, saying lawmakers have an “awesome opportunity and a responsibility to do something, hopefully” before the legislative session formally wraps on July 31.
Speaking on a panel at the same Norwood forum, which was sponsored by AAA, Boncore praised the TCI program but added that it’s still a proposal and any potential revenue remains up to four years away.
“I think we do need revenue today to invest in our 21st century transportation system. There are other ways we can do that,” he said.
Business groups have floated a series of ideas to spur revenue, including a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce-backed proposal to hike the gas tax by 15 cents over three years. At that amount, it would be the biggest boost in a generation.
A Better City, a Boston group of business leaders, released a report last week that called for $50 billion in new revenue over two decades, including a gas tax increase.
Richard A. Dimino, the business group’s president, said the state should still pursue both the tax hike and the coalition’s plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He also suggested that legislators could tie them together by creating triggers that allow the gas tax to fall in the future as costs from the cap-and-invest program go up.
“I think it’s feasible to keep both on the table,” he said.
The Legislature last pursued a major transportation revenue bill in 2013, when it passed what promised to be an $800 million package, in part by hiking the gas tax by 3 cents, from 21 cents per gallon to the current 24 cents. But parts of the plan quickly dissolved, including in 2014, when voters eliminated a provision that had tied the gas tax to inflation.
Baker, who also opposes tying the gas tax to inflation, has prodded lawmakers to pass an $18 billion transportation bond bill he proposed during the summer, with TCI helping to provide some of the revenue.
Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy coalition, Transportation for Massachusetts, describes the TCI plan as being in the “second or third inning of the process.”
“We think it’s a really important program,” he said. “But we have an immediate need today to improve the system. Looking at the gas tax as a revenue source is a reasonable thing to do to help address that crisis.”