Tuesday May 15, 2012

State public transportation money tends to collect in Boston, with the funding that escapes gradually petering out as it reaches the Berkshires. That must change, and the Legislature should also explore a couple of new funding mechanisms that would provide organizations like the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority with the funding they require.

MassInc, a nonpartisan Boston-based think tank, reported at a forum hosted Friday at BRTA headquarters that while Regional Transportation Authorities (RTAs) receive about one-third of their budget from the state, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority receives 57 percent of its budget from the state. With so many legislators and legislative leaders congregated in Boston this inequity isn’t entirely shocking. Berkshire County, also not surprisingly, receives $1 for every $20 in sales tax revenue that goes out of the region to help fund the MBTA, the lowest ratio in the state. As MassInc research director Ben Forman succinctly put it Friday, "We’re over-investing in Boston and under-investing in the RTAs."

Boston certainly needs mass transit to reduce the number of vehicles on its clogged streets, but rural areas where people, many of them low-income, must travel long distances for work, health care and to receive public services, require mass transit as well, at all hours of the day and night. A recent BRTA survey found that 64 percent of those queried don’t own cars. The BRTA and its fellow RTAs are a lifeline for many outside the Route 128 belt and should be funded accordingly.

MassInc offered two revenue-generating proposals to benefit RTAs, one involving a payroll tax and a second, preferable option linked directly to transportation. A 5 cent per mile tax on vehicle travel would generate $183 million at a cost of $1.53 per week per vehicle, according to MassInc. Besides generating revenue this might reduce the imbalance in the state between vehicular traffic, which puts a strain on roads and burns through household gas budgets, and public transportation, which has benefits in every sector of the state.