Someday, we’ll all get so sick of traffic jams and crowded subway platforms that Congress and the states will just have to plow trillions more into transportation improvements. Until then, Beacon Hill should at least help cities and towns scrape together their own seed money for projects they really, really want.
South Coast Rail ? Highway improvements in Western Massachusetts? If communities can’t rely on state and federal money to foot the entire bill for such projects, they need to be able to amass some funds of their own.
Two obscure amendments on Beacon Hill could make a big difference. One would let cities and towns band together and ask voters for permission to levy new dedicated transportation taxes. The other would allow communities to raise money for major rail and road improvements through “value capture” — that is, by tapping the increased tax revenue that those projects are likely to generate as the value of nearby land soars.
Now pending before House-Senate conference committees, both provisions deserve to become law.
Massachusetts is already stumbling in this direction. In May, after the cost of the proposed Green Line extension ballooned by $1 billion, the state got Cambridge and Somerville to kick in a total of $75 million to help save the project. Property values are already heading skyward along the project route, so asking Cambridge and Somerville to share some of the inevitable tax windfall made some sense.
Granted, because there’s currently no standard process to negotiate such payments, the state’s last-minute, ad hoc plea for money from the two cities felt like a stick-up. Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone and Cambridge city manager Richard Rossi were hardly beaming with joy when they announced their contributions: “an extreme and unprecedented arrangement for a state infrastructure project,” they called the deal in their joint press release.
But when local governments are formally involved from the start in the financing of a rail improvement or a highway interchange, state and federal funders can see that it’s a high priority for the communities involved. Plus, the involvement of local money dissuades voters from thinking — as many outside Interstate 495 did during the Big Dig era — that one city is getting lots of unearned freebies from the state. “I think it helps create public acceptance of large projects,” says William Straus, the Mattapoisett representative who cochairs the Legislature’s transportation committee and championed the value-capture amendment.
Sadly, the United States as a whole isn’t exploiting historically low interest rates to make massive upgrades. One bright spot in an otherwise bizarre presidential campaign is that both candidates recognize there’s a problem. Donald Trump complains loudly about the quality of American railways and airports. (If you’re a real estate developer, an aspiring strongman, or both, the benefits of monumental public works are obvious.) For her part, Hillary Clinton has a $275 billion plan to improve transportation and power networks.
Whether sums like that will ever materialize is anybody’s guess, though, and cities and towns can’t just sit around waiting. Massachusetts communities with big ideas and big hopes need to move forward, even if it’s on their own dime.