State Officials Outline Transportation Funding Bill, But Activists Say It’s Not Enough

The Legislature's plan is very different from a proposal laid out by Governor Deval Patrick in January.

State House

Legislative leaders unveiled a transportation finance plan on Tuesday that they say would address certain funding issues to close a projected operating budget gap in Massachusetts, and move statewide road and public transit projects forward. But activists that gathered on Beacon Hill the same day that the legislation was proposed say the plan doesn’t cover the costs needed to fix the state’s unstable system.

“It seems like we are locking in chronic underfunding, which means peoples’ needs across the state are not going to be met. You need to look at it by what the needs are. Academics have been calculating these numbers for a long time, and this is just short,” says Lizzie Weyant, advocacy director for the grassroots group Transportation for Massachusetts.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray discussed the joint proposal during a media briefing, stating the reform package would “fix long-standing financial problems” within the state’s transportation system by passing the $500 million financing plan. In order to fund it, legislators suggest increasing the gas tax in Massachusetts by three cents to help pay for roads and bridges—costing drivers between $12 and $30 extra per year—adding a $1-per-pack tax on tobacco products and changing the tax status of utility companies.

Officials say the plan does not rely solely on raising the gas tax so that the burden is not only on the backs of drivers. According to the proposal, gas consumption has also declined, and will continue to, so relying on a hike alone would “maximize the chance that a funding gap would reopen in the next five years.”

The proposal has vast differences from an income tax hike plan proposed by Governor Deval Patrick in January that he says would have raised around $1 billion annually for transportation investments, while also benefiting educational needs across the Commonwealth.

According to the State House News Service, the legislature’s bill doesn’t factor in projects Patrick’s proposal would finance, like the expansion of the commuter rail service to the South Coast and the Green Line extension.

But legislators from both the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Mean and the Joint Committee on Transportation, who helped craft the bill, say the plan meets transportation funding needs. “With this plan, we seek to provide adequate funding for the…transportation system our economy needs while not over-burdening families and businesses of Massachusetts,” DeLeo says.

Transportation advocates don’t think the funding proposal is enough, however. Prior to the legislation being presented Weyant, and dozens of supporters and members of other activist groups, stood on the State House steps with signs while chanting and urging elected leaders to stop “kicking the can” when it comes to adequately funding the state’s transportation needs.

Weyant says this proposal may stave off fare increases on the MBTA for now, but it’s not guaranteed. “I think we need to make sure the number that comes out is as much as it can possibly be, so we can make the kind of statewide investments that we know that we need,” she says.

MBTA Spokesman Joe Pesaturo says T officials will review the proposal put forth by the legislature on Tuesday, but would not comment further at this time about how it could impact the need for additional service cuts and fare increases.