STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 14, 2012…..Momentum appears to be building in House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s circle of deputies for a short-term solution to an MBTA budget bind that threatens to crush commuters with 40 percent fare hikes and crippling service cuts.
Although DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have professed patience while they await the results of a statewide hearing tour being conducted by the T, a groundswell of rank-and-file lawmakers calling for an infusion of revenue has placed the issue on the radar as budget season heats up.
On Tuesday afternoon, a newly promoted member of DeLeo’s leadership team, Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston), said the Legislature must act.
“I don’t think that there’s anything given at this point except that we have to do something,” Rushing, the House assistant majority leader, told the News Service.
“I am not theoretically opposed to all the cuts that they’re making but I do think that we have to share the solution beyond cuts and fare increases. We have to consider more stuff … I certainly, and I think most of my colleagues who are involved in both of these caucuses, understand that if we don’t do that, we are simply going to have this same problem before us exactly 12 months from now.”
Rushing’s call came less than a week after House floor division leader Paul Donato (D-Medford) said he believed a legislative fix for the T’s budget woes was increasingly likely – if not to close the agency’s entire budget deficit, at least to stave off the worst of the service cuts the T has proposed.
And Patrick administration officials are looking more closely at transportation financing, though one official said lawmakers “shouldn’t necessarily assume we’ll sign off on a short-term fix” for the T without a commitment to finding a longer-term solution. The official said pouring additional funding into the T could “exacerbate the inequitable distribution of transportation dollars” across the state.
“I don’t think the administration is averse to a conversation about how we can avert deep cuts to the MBTA, but it can’t be, ‘Ok, let’s put a Band-Aid on it. There has to be a commitment that there will be a real dialogue about how to fix this,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Rushing’s comments came immediately after an hour-long meeting between members of the Legislature’s MBTA caucus and RTA caucus, featuring remarks from three advocates for new revenue streams to support the state transportation system. At the meeting, officials from MassPIRG, MassINC, and A Better City pleaded with lawmakers to settle on a financing package that would help narrow a $1-billion-per-year gap between transportation system maintenance needs and actual spending. Reforms, they argued, had been exhausted and would only solve a sliver of state’s transportation funding problems.
“Now the reform discussion needs to immediately switch to a revenue discussion, and we need to be brave enough to have that discussion,” said Rick Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City.
The advocates laid out an array of options: a payroll tax dedicated to transportation that would be shouldered largely in the urban, employment centers that rely on transportation, an open-road tolling system to assess drivers based on the number of miles they travel, an increase in the state gas tax, rededicating funds for underground storage tanks, electronic fare collection on commuter rail trains and in MBTA parking lots, and a plan for incremental, regular fare increases for T riders.
Elizabeth Weyant, an advocate with MassPIRG, also suggested that cities and towns be permitted to raise revenue to fund their own transportation projects and that state officials consider creating an “infrastructure bank” similar to one proposed by U.S. Sen. John Kerry at the federal level.
“There are a lot of ways to skin this cat,” she said.
Massachusetts is also not alone in facing a transportation funding crisis. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday filed legislation that would apply that state’s 6 percent sales tax to the retail price of gasoline in an effort to address an $800 million shortfall in Maryland’s transportation fund. The expansion of the sales tax would be phased in over three year, and frozen if gas prices spike.
Lawmakers have read from the same playbook in recent weeks when asked about the short-term budget woes at the T, generally calling for a “comprehensive, statewide” solution that benefits all 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, not just the 175 served by the MBTA, but offering few details.
“Coming together on this means a commitment to do long-term, hard structural relief,” Rushing said. “I think it will be easier for people to agree on the short-term pieces if they’re convinced we’re going to do the long-term piece.”
Shortly after the caucus met, dozens of protesters staged a “die-in” on the steps of the State House to express opposition to the MBTA proposals. Demonstrators lay on the sidewalk with large cardboard props shaped as weights on top of them and labeled “Big Dig Debt.” “We are here to show them we do not want to be crushed by debt,” said Jessica Pomare, an activist with the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition. “We did not earn it, that's the drivers' debt,” Pomare said.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), co-chair of the MBTA caucus, joined protesters.
“People are afraid they’re not going to be able to get to work, they’re going to lose their jobs, or that they may need to buy cars and sit in traffic,” Jehlen said in a statement. “So yes, people are angry, they’re worried; they want a solution and they can’t do it alone. That’s why we have the legislature and a governor to try to solve these problems and we’re going to do it together.”
Separately Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray reiterated the Patrick administration’s frequent call for an “adult conversation” to solve the state’s transportation finance challenges, insisting on a plan to address funding needs for the next ten to 15 years.
Speaking at the State House to local officials who pressed him for increased infrastructure aid to cities and towns, Murray said, “There are no more rabbits in the hat and even if we can accelerate the growth on the jobs front it’s not going to address that $20 billion backlog.”
Meeting with local officials, Murray told them he knew they wouldn’t be doing their job if they did not ask for more money, but would not commit to increased funding above what was proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick last month in his budget proposal.
“We need your voices in this room to be loud, persistent and we know they’re going to be thoughtful that we need to have a revenue package. We need to have an adult, bipartisan conversation in the next 12 to 18 months in that regard, and it needs to be a fix that meet our needs for the next 10 to 15 years so we’re not doing this every year,” Murray said.
Danvers Assistant Town Manager Diane Norris said that while the MBTA has garnered all the headlines for its $161 million deficit, cities and towns are facing a $1.3 billion shortfall in needed transportation infrastructure investments.
While the governor’s budget level funds Chapter 90 for road and bridge repairs at $200 million in fiscal 2013, Norris and Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan said the Local Government Advisory Commission was formally requesting an increase.
“Maybe you won’t go for $400 million, but we’ll settle for $300 million,” Norris said. “The problem is we need to come up with a predictable funding source for transportation for cities and towns.”
Sullivan called for a summit to discuss solutions the state’s long-term transportation financing needs, while joining Norris in pressing for additional Chapter 90 aid next year.
“What we think is immediately achievable is something north of $200 million,” Sullivan said. “I guess the ask today is we want to be north of $200 million, and we have friends in the Legislature and we’ll use them too, and that’s not saber rattling.”
Sullivan asked the Patrick administration to “set the table” for a broader discussion of transportation funding, acknowledging that talking revenue is a “heavy lift” but expressing the desire among local officials to work with the administration.
Earlier Wednesday, a group known as the Association for Public Transportation called on the MBTA to implement “time of day pricing,” adjusting fares for peak and off-peak travel. The group also called on the T to apply “distance-based pricing,” lowering prices for riders going a few stops and raising them for longer trips.