As MBTA riders brace for a potential fare hike, it may seem like the state is taking the easy way out to raise transportation revenue.
What’s much more difficult is for Beacon Hill to come up with a real plan that generates the billions of dollars needed to adequately maintain the transportation system the Commonwealth has today and upgrade it for the future. Not just the T, but highways, bridges, and other state transit agencies are all in need of investment.
Raising tolls, imposing new tolls, and backing a gas tax increase? All really tough politically . But there’s no time like the present, as Boston has been ignominiously crowned the most congested city in America (in one recent study). And if a 6.3 percent fare increase goes into effect this summer, that will likely only exacerbate the region’s traffic woes; when fares go up, ridership goes down, and the MBTA already is projecting a 1.3 percent ridership decrease.
Where to start a discussion no one really wants to have? Here’s one place: a new report by A Better City, which outlines for the first time how much money could be generated from new user fees and taxes. The transportation advocacy group, backed by local business leaders, proposed a menu of potential funding options over the next decade, including:
• Increasing the gas tax by 11.5 cents, which could bring in $3.9 billion.
• Imposing $2 tolls on the border of interstate highways like Interstates 91, 93, and 95, which could raise $3.8 billion.
• Expanding in-state tolling, such as $1 on I-93 and I-95, which could reap $1.9 billion.
• Implementing congestion pricing by charging higher tolls of $5 during peak travel times, which could result in $2.9 billion.
• Raising ride-hailing service surcharges to $1.70 per ride from 20 cents, which could provide $800 million.
Other options — like allowing regional taxing districts, so that municipalities or groups of municipalities could jointly raise funds for transportation projects — should also be on the table.
What’s missing? The political will, of course.
There have been plenty of excuses. Voters don’t like higher gas taxes. Republican Governor Charlie Baker doesn’t like congestion pricing.
No more excuses — that’s what business, political, and civic leaders should be saying. Yes, it’s true that voters in 2014 approved a measure to repeal a law that automatically tied increases to the state gas tax to inflation. But nothing prevents Beacon Hill from passing a bill or a measure in the budget that would back a one-time increase of the gas tax.
Even if the Legislature implemented a 11.5 cent gas tax today, the total gas tax would be 35.5 cents. That’s in line with Connecticut (36.85 cents) and Rhode Island (34 cents).
As for congestion pricing, a transportation commission that Baker created and was led by his former chief of staff, Steve Kadish, recommended in December the state explore charging higher tolls during peak periods to ease traffic. The report gives an opening for Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and Beacon Hill. They should run with it.
Just this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put aside any political differences to endorse a congestion pricing proposal in New York to “transform” the transit system and “create dedicated and sustained funding streams.”
The additional money, however, comes with significant reforms and restructuring at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs New York’s subways, buses, and regional rail. That’s something Massachusetts should keep in mind too: Any significant infusion of money should come with strings attached to make sure its spent in a way that will truly transform our transportation network.
As for imposing new interstate tolls, that is a bit more complicated and in most cases would require permission from the Federal Highway Administration. But it can be done. Rhode Island did it recently on tractor trailers, and Connecticut is looking into it.
Fixing the T and reducing congestion should no longer be considered “nice-to-haves.” If the Commonwealth wants to keep its economy humming, Beacon Hill should make transforming the transportation infrastructure and finding a way to pay for it a priority.