House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he’s waiting to learn more about a regional vehicle emission reduction pact before deciding how it will fit into his plan for transportation.
But one of his top deputies said it hasn’t changed his mind about increasing the gas tax.
Transportation Committee Co-chair William Straus said in an interview this week that the House is still targeting January for a debate over how to raise more money for transportation, but he sees Governor Charlie Baker’s pursuit of a multi-state, cap-and-invest program as something separate from those discussions.
Despite the Transportation Climate Initiative’s impacts on the costs of a gallon of gas, Straus said he doesn’t believe that negates the need for a gas tax increase, or mean he won’t recommend one to his colleagues.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also said this week that state lawmakers should not shy away from raising the gas tax just because Baker is closing in on a deal with other governors to join TCI. “We need to be bold when it comes to transportation,” Walsh said.
The Transportation Climate Initiative, which is under negotiation between 11 states and the District of Columbia, could add up to 17 cents to the price of a gallon of gas and generate as much as $500 million for Massachusetts to reinvest in cleaner transit and climate change programs.
Critics, including the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and some Republican legislators, have panned the initiative as the equivalent of a gas tax hike, though supporters have rebutted that characterization. Baker has said he opposes an increase in the gas tax, but supports TCI as a market-based regional solution to reduce carbon emissions and generate money to invest in programs that will help the state meet its climate goals.
“TCI, while it may be great for the environment, is not a transportation financing solution,” Straus told the News Service in an interview this week.
Straus said that, unlike the gas tax, he does not believe that Massachusetts will be able to borrow against future TCI revenue to finance long-term infrastructure projects.
He also said that policymakers would be missing the urgency of the moment if they relied on TCI funding that won’t start to flow until 2022 at the earliest.
“It’s not now and it’s not known or predictable,” Straus said. “If the priority is transportation financing that generates revenue into a continual restricted trust fund, I think this would benefit from more candor with the public.”
The coalition of states developing TCI anticipate that the details of the program will be finalized by the spring when participating states will be asked to sign on. Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has already pulled his state out of the talks because of the cost it will add at the pump.
Baker has requested in legislation the authority to allocate half of all TCI proceeds toward public transit, while the rest would likely be spent on projects like sidewalks, bike lanes and other programs to reduce people’s reliance on cars to move around.
Straus noted that the administration has said it could try to spend some of the money on broadband infrastructure to make it easier for rural, western Massachusetts workers to telecommute.
DeLeo met with Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka just before Christmas where the impact of TCI on gas prices was one of the subjects discussed, according to the speaker.
“I think we’re going to need a little more review and I know the governor’s going to be providing us with some information relative to TCI, anywhere from government approval to the cost and whatnot,” DeLeo told reporters.
The speaker’s office declined to say whether the speaker thinks TCI needs legislative approval, and Straus said he didn’t know whether there might be a reason to doubt the administration’s assertion that the governor does not need the Legislature’s approval to join TCI.
Representative David DeCoste of Norwell filed a bill on Dec. 20 to give the Legislature final say.
The Decoste bill would require a vote of the House and Senate before Massachusetts could participate in any “state, regional, or national low carbon fuel standards program or any similar program that requires quotas, caps, or mandates on any fuels used for transportation, industrial purposes, or home heating.”
Straus did say it should be “absolutely clear” that the House and Senate has full control over how TCI proceeds are spent, and hopes the administration agrees. “On the spending side, I sense a disagreement with the administration,” he said.