Tuesday January 15, 2013

The 10-year, $13 billion state transportation plan offered Monday by the administration of Governor Deval Patrick and the Mass. Department of Transportation will address the long-neglected road, bridge, highway and rail issues facing Massachusetts in general and Berkshire County in particular. The keys to its success will be in determining the funding mechanism and assuring that regions outside of Boston, like the Berkshires, receive their fair share of the revenue.

The $113 million proposed to upgrade railroad tracks from Pittsfield to the Connecticut line would be critical in making the passenger train connection to Danbury, Connecticut that would link to Grand Central Terminal via Metro-North Railroad. This restored link to New York could produce jobs and tourist revenue. Increasing the budget for the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority from $1.9 million to $5.1 million annually would enable the BRTA to explore adding routes, extending service hours and operating on Sundays, which would among other benefits expand job opportunities for those without cars.

In its report, the Department of Transportation outlined funding options, including hikes in the state gasoline, sales, payroll or income taxes, as well as a "green fee" tax that would be added to title and registration fees. The gasoline tax, which is the primary source of transportation funding, has been stagnant since 1993, depriving the state of needed revenue as gasoline prices have risen and the transportation infrastructure has aged and crumbled.

While the report did not recommend any changes to tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike, the governor told The Eagle that returning the pay tolls to Exits 1 through 6 on the western end of the state was discussed, with the provision that the new revenue would only be used on transportation projects in the communities between those exits. That is a good argument for restoration of the tolls. The governor added that "regional equity" in the distribution of the funds would be an important component of the plan, as Boston has tended to swallow transportation dollars.

Mr. Patrick warned that the "how" of funding the plan cannot overshadow the "why" of the need to enact it. The underfunded and stagnant transportation infrastructure of Berkshire County has long hindered efforts to bring in new jobs and tourists to ski areas, cultural attractions, restaurants and hotels. Doing nothing "is a choice, too" said the governor, a choice to leave "self-defeating economics in place." It’s time to choose to improve that infrastructure for the benefit of all and face up to the reality of funding that choice properly and for the long term.