On its face, last Tuesday was a bleak day for anyone who rides a train or a bus around Boston. Massachusetts voters overturned a new law that would have ratcheted up the state’s gas tax at regular intervals, and they installed in the governor’s office Charlie Baker, who doesn’t want to backfill the hole the gas tax repeal will leave behind. This should be a recipe for more broken trains, fewer buses, shoddier transit service, and ever-worsening traffic in and around Boston.
But it’s also a blessing in disguise. The gas tax repeal took the stuffing out of a weak transportation finance package that the Legislature enacted last year. Beacon Hill now has a chance to take a second run at the issue, and get it right this time. This means getting out of the way, and allowing the area served by the MBTA to raise the money it needs to keep moving itself forward.
Massachusetts is at a tipping point in how it pays for its roads, bridges, buses, and trains. The ballot petition repeals a law last year that tied the gas tax to inflation — an innocuous, almost invisible tax. That’s part of the reason the state’s anti-tax movement seized on it. The inflation repeal passed comfortably, with 53 percent of the vote. Over the next 10 years, splitting the tax from inflation will cost the state roughly $1 billion in transportation revenue.
The gas tax was part of a complicated transportation finance package the Legislature passed last year. But even with the new revenue, the Legislature’s transportation fix wasn’t enough. Without it, it’s laughable to even call the package a fix. It’s literally a half-measure: The state’s transportation system faces, on average, a $1 billion funding shortfall every year, and now, without the gas tax revenues, it will only get an average of $500 million every year in new revenues.
The shortfall covers both state highways and the MBTA. But the T is a big part of any state transportation deficit; the agency has been cutting corners on basic maintenance for years, and last year’s financing package from Beacon Hill essentially plugged its operating deficit, but left a huge list of key capital projects unfunded. Rafael Mares, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, compares last year’s legislative revenue package to a too-small blanket: There’s no telling what will be left on the outside, but it’s not big enough to cover everything that needs to be covered.
Leaving the T in shambles would have far-reaching consequences. From the Filene’s block downtown to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Malden Center, and Somerville’s Union and Assembly Squares, the T is the engine that’s enabling Greater Boston’s breakneck growth right now. The growth engine is humming, even though the transit system it runs on is seriously over capacity and under-funded. Without a serious cash infusion, it’s headed for a breakdown.
Beacon Hill has repeatedly refused to fund all the T’s needs, because suburban lawmakers fear a political backlash for throwing money at Boston. Last year’s financing package, even with the now-vaporized gas tax revenue, wasn’t close to big enough. The solution is for Beacon Hill to move out of the way, and allow the people who benefit from the T to pay for it.
Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Portland, Ore., all pay for transit, partially, with local and regional revenues. A 2011 MassINC report estimated that a payroll tax of 0.3 percent — less than half what Portland collects — would cost the average Boston household $3.85 per week, but put roughly $400 million into the T. Local option transit taxes are incredibly popular with voters. Even in this wave year for Republicans, voters approved 65 percent of transit funding ballot questions nationwide. A localized transit tax would need Beacon Hill’s cooperation, but it’s the only way the T is going to keep up Boston’s growth. The T makes the Boston region possible, so the Boston region should at least be able to vote on whether to raise the funds to keep it going.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.