MASS Transit

MASS Transit

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has introduced a state budget proposal for fiscal 2014 that proposes a significant increase in funds dedicated to improving and expanding public transit, highways, and infrastructure. Patrick’s move follows an ambitious Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) plan to expand the state’s transportation infrastructure.

The new budget sheds some light on how the state will raise the revenue to address the needs outlined in MassDOT’s report, The Way Forward: A 21st Century Transportation Plan.

In an effort to tackle the critical issues in both the short and long term, Governor Patrick has proposed a $13 billion capital investment to transportation over the next 10 years, with a $269 million increase for 2014, to implement the changes recommended in the report. This new investment would make sweeping changes, eliminating MBTA’s deficit, committing an additional $100 million to Chapter 90 local bridge and road funding, and providing better MBTA service by expanding hours and restoring weekend service that had been cut.

“We commit to reinvesting in our transportation system to ensure we can pay the bills we inherited; repair our aging roads, rails, and bridges; and make targeted expansions, to unlock long-term economic development across the state,” said Governor Patrick in his January 23 announcement of the new fiscal budget.

The Patrick administration recommends, over the next decade, that funds be directed toward a number of large-scale projects, from building and establishing better rail service in South Coast and Western Massachusetts to replacing old buses and cars on the Red, Orange, and Green lines.

“I think it is really notable that in the projects slated for investments there is no highway widening or off ramps proposed,” said André Leroux, executive director of Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “This is about investing in the current system and making it better, and thinking ahead in the changing ways of how we live and want to live.”

Governor Patrick’s plan to loosen up funding for these costly initiatives would include raising the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, and lowering the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 4.5 percent; resulting funds, according to Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s budget brief, would go to a Commonwealth Public Infrastructure fund for “transportation and infrastructure projects.” Revenue also would come through an increase in Turnpike tolls, MBTA fares, and Registry of Motor Vehicles fees. The Governor further recommends raising the cigarette tax by $1 per pack.

A few potential revenue sources that MassDOT recommended in its report were absent from the Governor’s proposal, however. These included a “green fee,” a fee based on a car’s carbon emissions, and a vehicle miles traveled tax.

Leroux pointed out that the transit system suffered a substantial financial loss after the Big Dig, which “saddled the MBTA with $2 billion of debt.” This boost in funding not only will improve transportation services within the Boston area, but also help build infrastructure and implement changes in regions that might have been neglected during that period.

Before the Patrick administration can move forward with its aggressive proposal, the House and Senate must approve the budget, and that might ultimately take some compromising. The Governor, however, is in a good position to bargain. As the Boston Globe pointed out, because lawmakers are not up for re-election in November, they may be more likely to “consider at least some tax increases.”

“This proposal is thoughtful,” Leroux said. “We can’t just get our system up to repair. We have to think of how to stay competitive, especially with rail. We need to increase choices all over the state and not just in the Boston area.”