Bumpy ride ahead for gov’s plan

March 12, 2013  By Emily O’Donnell, The Sun Chronicle

BOSTON – Gov. Deval Patrick is facing an increasingly bumpy ride in his drive to get more and spend more on the state’s transportation system.

There have been few outright supporters of his plan to raise the income and gasoline taxes while devoting a lower sales tax entirely to road repairs, rail improvements and additional help for the MBTA. The governor’s plan was challenged last week from various sectors, ranging from House Speaker Robert DeLeo to a coalition of transportation advocates.

In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, DeLeo said the transportation plan should be “far more narrow in scope and significantly smaller in size” because Patrick’s more expansive proposal would “place too heavy a burden on working families.”

Patrick’s plan includes a 1 percent hike in the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, and a 1.75 percent cut in the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent, though all revenues from the sales tax would be devoted to transportation. ”We seek to fund the priorities we need to enhance the economy, without creating any collateral damage,” DeLeo said, referring to the governor’s plans to raise the income tax and increase MBTA fares to pay the state’s transportation debt. 

DeLeo said he would push to fund only certain projects of the administration’s transportation proposal, citing allocation for the MBTA and regional buses as a priority. The governor, however, is standing by his plan, and has launched a website that shows how much money each district would receive for transportation projects under his budget.

Attleboro would get the most money in the region with about $1.2 million in fiscal year 2013, with an increase of more than $6 million in the next 10 years, according to governor’s page on Mass.gov. North Attleboro would get $75,000. Another $14 million would go to the state for highway resurfacing on Route 1 and bridge repair.

The 9th Norfolk District, represented by Rep. Daniel Winslow, R-Norfolk, would see the most construction on roads under the governor’s plan. Two million dollars would go to resurfacing near Walpole. Roadwork along Route 152 outside Wrentham would receive $4 million. Winslow said he would have to wait until a final proposal is drafted before he decides his position. ”I’m not a big fan of increasing taxes during a recession, but (the governor’s plan) is written in sand,” Winslow said at a campaign event. “I’ll wait to see what the final proposal looks like before I make up my mind.”

The governor’s proposal would dedicate $1 billion to transportation through tax increases, as well as through higher MBTA fares, and an increase in turnpike, bridge and tunnel tolls of 5 percent every two years starting next year. MassDOT board members and MBTA officials support Patrick’s plan. They warned last week that if the transportation department didn’t receive the funding laid out in the governor’s plan, commuters would pay higher fares for less efficient service.

“When we’re talking about a structural gap of over $100 million, it’s going to take some real serious measures to fix it,” MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott told the MassDOT Board of Directors Standing Committee on Finance and Audit. The committee is working to write a balanced budget proposal by April 15 that will close the MBTA’s $115 million to $120 million deficit.

MassDOT Board Chairman John Jenkins said at a board meeting that deciding on a budget plan is made more difficult without a clue as to how the House will act on Patrick’s transportation plan. ”We’re in a precarious position because we have to move forward with a balanced budget without knowing if we’ll get relief from the Legislature,” Jenkins said.

But while the focus is on funding, transportation advocacy groups meeting last week said policy should also be part of the budget discussion.

Kristina Egan, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, spoke for legislation that would stop the use of capital dollars to pay for operating expenses, ensure transportation revenues benefit all Massachusetts communities equally and require environmental oversight for transportation projects. ”We’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road,” Egan said to a group of transportation advocates who gathered in the House Members’ Lounge on Tuesday.

One of the participants, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong put the issue in starker terms. ”To use a casino metaphor, we can’t just keep pulling the lever hoping to get all the cherries in a row,” she said. “Now is the time to act.” The bill is backed by a group of Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, who is a lead sponsor of the legislation.

“We all depend on transportation throughout or daily lives, so we need to realize that the entire commonwealth is in this together,” Clark said.

Another lead sponsor, Rep. Carl Sciortino, D-Medford, said renovations to the system were long overdue. ”Transportation is part of a network of policy areas we need to get a handle on,” Sciortino said. “Public health, environmental health, economic development and transportation are all intimately tied together.” The House is scheduled to present its version of the state’s annual budget on April 10, assuming transportation remains a part of the overall budget.

The MassDOT board is set to meet the same day to come up with a budget for the MBTA, which will be announced on April 15.