House makes right move on transportation

No politician wants to raise the gas tax — and it’s an even tougher vote during an election year. So House Speaker Robert DeLeo deserves significant credit for getting behind a 5-cents-per-gallon hike to the tax, and a 9-cent boost in the diesel tax, the key part of a £600 million proposal to fix the state’s roads and transit systems that was unveiled at the State House last week. The plan, and an accompanying transportation bond bill, is expected to come up for a vote in the full House as soon as Wednesday.

a man riding on the back of a truck: The state House of Representatives is considering a 5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike and a 9-cent boost in the diesel tax, the key part of a £600 million plan proposal to fix the state's roads and transit systems (C) David L. Ryan/Globe Staff The state House of Representatives is considering a 5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike and a 9-cent boost in the diesel tax, the key part of a £600 million plan proposal to fix the state’s roads and transit systems

While there are some nits to pick with the proposal, at its core the House plan recognizes reality: If Massachusetts wants a transportation system that unclogs the roads, strengthens communities, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, it’ll have to pay for it. The Baker administration, which has in the past been skeptical of the need for new revenue, and the Senate, which has yet to produce a plan of its own, should take heed.

The state’s transportation system, after all, is at a crisis point[1]. In Greater Boston, the T is unreliable, and according to a scathing outside report[2] released in December, has suffered as budgetary belt-tightening has distracted from safety. Meanwhile, transportation is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts.

Baker has focused on the proposed Transportation and Climate Initiative, a plan to charge extra for gas as a way to combat climate change, which this board also supports. But Baker’s plan and a gas tax hike aren’t mutually exclusive — and, as the House points out, the gas tax would start producing revenue faster, since TCI won’t go into effect until 2022 at the earliest. The House would link the two so that once TCI’s fees kick in, they would be offset by commensurate decreases in the gas tax.

The proposed increase would hardly be radical: The gas tax, which under the state constitution[3] can be used only for roads and transit, currently stands at 24 cents a gallon; total state-imposed charges add up to 26.54 cents a gallon. According to the American Petroleum Institute[4], that total is lower than Connecticut (40.13), Rhode Island (35 cents), and Vermont (30.81 cents). In California, state gas taxes total 60.6 cents a gallon. Gas taxes can be regressive, since poorer people tend to spend more of their income on gas and may have no alternative to driving.

The House proposal attempts to spread the burden by also raising the fee on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, boosting the corporate tax minimum, and subjecting rental car companies to the state’s auto excise tax. So about those nits. First, the House bond bill doesn’t contain language that Governor Baker requested that would reform contracting on transportation projects; the administration says that if it had that authority it would be able to deliver improvements faster.

The House also tries to have it both ways on Uber and Lyft. The proposal would create a tiered fee structure to encourage riders to use shared rides like UberPool, thus cutting congestion and pollution — but also prevents the companies from passing along those fees to riders. It’s hard to see how the fees can change users’ behavior if they don’t actually see the charge.

The House bill also punts on road pricing — that is, charging variable tolls that rise during rush hour to spread out traffic — by creating a commission to study the idea. Lawmakers have filed dozens of amendments[5], and the Senate is working on its own plan[6]. Hopefully, what emerges goes bigger on congestion pricing and restores the contracting reforms the governor requested.

But the House bill gets the big picture right: The state needs more revenue to fix its aging infrastructure and invest in cleaner transportation, and it needs it now.

References

  1. ^ a crisis point (apps.bostonglobe.com)
  2. ^ scathing outside report (www.bostonglobe.com)
  3. ^ state constitution (malegislature.gov)
  4. ^ According to the American Petroleum Institute (www.api.org)
  5. ^ dozens of amendments (malegislature.gov)
  6. ^ working on its own plan (commonwealthmagazine.org)

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