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Walsh challenges state officials to act on transportation in annual State of the City speech

Mayor Marty Walsh sat beside Yohan Almonte (back right), Lamarana Bah, (left) and Angel Castillo before they introduced him at his annual State of the City address.
Mayor Marty Walsh sat beside Yohan Almonte (back right), Lamarana Bah, (left) and Angel Castillo before they introduced him at his annual State of the City address.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In his annual State of the City speech, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Tuesday challenged Massachusetts policy makers to be bold in tackling the region’s transportation crisis — or get out of the way and empower the city to raise the funds needed to improve public transit on its own.

“If you can’t move this forward, let us lead,” the mayor said to cheers.

He also pressed for Beacon Hill to green light the city’s effort to impose a tax on all real estate transfers over $2 million — so the city can funnel that money toward more affordable housing.

In a speech focused on lifting up the middle class, Walsh committed to pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of new resources into fighting inequities in housing, transportation, and education, acknowledging the city could do more to be “bold.”

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“We will lead with our values. We will work together across all our differences to tackle our toughest challenges. We will be a city that’s world class because it works for the middle class. And we will leave no one behind,” the mayor said in his speech at Symphony Hall.

It was Walsh’s seventh annual citywide speech since taking office in 2014, and, by his own account, his boldest, most innovative call to action yet to tackle the inequities that plague Boston.

While celebrating the city’s accomplishments amid a booming economy, the mayor — who will face voters in 2021 if he runs for a third four-year term — also sought to strike a humble tone. He acknowledged more work needs to be done to close gaps between those who have benefited from Boston’s successes and those in some of Boston’s poorer communities.

In a departure from past speeches, he invited city residents, including immigrants new to Boston, a young man who had served time in jail, and a senior citizen, to give testimonials of their struggles and their successes.

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“We will keep working together, fighting together, and growing together — so that all the people of Boston can thrive together, a city united and strengthened by our values,” the mayor said.

Most notable, however, was that Walsh took aim at the State House. A former state representative, the Dorchester resident issued a rare edict for state leaders to “be bold” and fulfill what he considers to be their responsibility to fix a broken public transportation system by committing new resources for the subway and commuter rail service — and for quicker bus routes through Boston’s neighborhoods.

“Do more than repair the system of the past,” the mayor said, noting the transportation system has grown into one of the region’s greatest crises. “Invest in the future of our Commonwealth. Mayors, business leaders, advocates — and commuters — will support you.”

If not, the mayor said, then the state should release its tight hold over Boston’s authority to collect revenue and allow the city to do what Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Phoenix have done: Host their own regional ballot initiative to let voters have a say in raising funds for transportation improvements.

“It’s time to give people a voice. For our economy, our environment, and our quality of life, it’s time for 21st-century transportation,” Walsh said.

The mayor also called on legislators to approve a home-rule petition the city sent to the State House seeking permission to a levy a tax of up to 2 percent on all real estate transfers over $2 million.

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That’s part of the city’s strategy to generate revenue to develop more affordable housing and compete with a booming market that has priced countless Bostonians out of their homes.

The city plans to immediately boost its own spending for housing with a $100 million one-time infusion, double the city’s current commitment, which — with the transfer tax in place — would direct an additional $500 million to subsidized housing over five years, the mayor said. The $500 million commitment depends on state approval of the transfer tax.

“I urge the Legislature to let us take this step, so we can ease housing pressures in neighborhoods like Brighton, Chinatown, and East Boston,” the mayor said.

He said the city will use the money to develop more subsidized housing and for a city-funded rental voucher system, a first of its kind in Boston, “so more low-income families can be stable and secure.”

The mayor said the funding would also assist thousands of first-time homebuyers, through a downpayment assistance program.

“If you want to invest in Boston, we want to invest in you,” the mayor said.

Walsh said he would also work with the City Council to sell the city-owned Lafayette Garage downtown, which could generate more than $120 million in cash for the city.

Walsh called housing, transportation, and education the city’s three core priorities, and he also announced a commitment of $100 million in new funding over the next three years for “direct classroom funding” in schools, in addition to regular budget increases — a new level of funding that “has never been done before,” the mayor told the crowd.

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That commitment is separate from a new state education funding formula that was recently approved by the Legislature and governor. Walsh’s pledge would support new curriculum development, including arts and STEM programming.

“It will reach every school and it will be carefully targeted, so every dollar makes a difference,” the mayor said.

The mayor called on the city to embrace its diversity.

In July, the city is set to host the NAACP’s national convention, what the mayor called “a milestone for our city, marking a new era of progress we have achieved together” to heal the city’s wounds from racial strife.

“This is a pivotal year in American history,” the mayor said. “It’s never been more important to stand up and say who we are, what we believe in, and what we are fighting for.”

The mayor’s call for the city and state to be bold comes at a time of progressive-minded political activism in the city and in the country, amid concerns of climate change and a widening gap between the lower and upper class.

Boston has seen an empowered City Council moving to the left of the mayor and spearheading its own groundbreaking, progressive policies, in key areas such as housing and regulating the nascent marijuana industry.

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Community advocates working in the fields of housing and transportation have also called on the mayor to go further to address inequities, pointing out that the city is seeing its biggest building boom, with an unprecedented $164 billion in real estate value, and yet families still struggle to afford a place to live.

In an interview, Walsh said that Tuesday’s speech was “about going further, going bigger, going bolder” to uplift residents.

He told reporters after his speech that he was confident his proposals would succeed in the Legislature, saying state officials should recognize that Boston is looking to take its own action to address problems plaguing the city.

The mayor said Governor Charlie Baker, who sat in the front row during the speech, acknowledged the mayor’s message with a “thumbs up.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.