BOSTON >> When Gov. Charlie Baker signs a highway and small bridge repair funding bill on Wednesday, the Republican governor plans to nix a proposed pilot program to test a system that would charge drivers based on how many miles they drive.
Labeling the vehicle-miles-traveled pilot program a "tax," Baker said he will veto the section of the infrastructure bill that lawmakers had hoped to use to test a possible alternative to the gas tax.
"We've already said that we don't support the vehicle miles traveled tax and we're going to veto that section of the bill, but we're really pleased with a number of other elements in that bill that's going to make it possible once again to work collaboratively with our colleagues in local government to do a lot of important work on small bridges and the projects associated with the Complete Streets program," Baker told reporters on Tuesday.
The bill (H 4557) authorizes $750 million in highway spending and creates a new $50 million grant program to help cities and towns repair some of the 1,300 municipally owned bridges of not more than 20-feet in length. The bill also updates the two-year-old Complete Streets programs, which encourages communities to design streets that are friendly to not just cars but bicyclists, pedestrians and others.
The bill agreed to by the House and Senate included a Senate plan directing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to apply to the federal government for a grant to pilot a vehicle-miles-traveled program with no more than 500 volunteer participants.
During a Senate debate in July, Sen. Jason Lewis, of Winchester, said both Oregon and California are piloting vehicle-miles-traveled programs, and the federal funding would help the state test the program's impact on gas consumption and gas tax revenues.
Sens. Lewis and Thomas McGee and Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier wrote a letter to Baker on Aug. 3 encouraging him to consider the pilot.
"This pilot will help inform the Legislature and your Administration on the viability of VMT as a policy solution to solve the problem of our steadily declining and somewhat unfairly balanced gas tax. If ever implemented statewide, we expect that a VMT programs would replace the gasoline tax," the legislators wrote.
Lewis, McGee and Farley-Bouvier said the fee for use of state and interstate highways could be designed to avoid over-burdening residents from some parts of the state that are more dependent on the highway system, and could take into account the time of day of travel and road congestion with higher prices charged on more traveled roads.
At a hearing in June focused on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said no state had adopted a vehicle miles traveled tax. The idea "has been around a long time" and state officials are monitoring pilot programs, she said, adding that such proposals have also surfaced "a lot of privacy issues."
"While vehicle miles traveled are rising in Massachusetts, last time I checked they are actually down per capita," Pollack told lawmakers. "So the assumption that, you know, gas taxes are going away because we're not using gas and vehicle miles traveled will go up forever, I'm not sure that's actually consistent with the greenhouse gas conversation we're having today." She later added, "If we do not make sure that people in communities throughout the Commonwealth have ways to get where they're going other than driving, there is a real fairness problem with increasing the cost of driving. In too many parts of this Commonwealth driving is not a choice. It is a necessity and the only way to go."
Saying the gas tax was producing "diminishing returns," Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) raised the vehicle miles traveled tax with Pollack, touting it as "a way to replace a tax, not add a tax."
"If we were to tax by vehicle miles traveled we could do a number of things," Farley-Bouvier said. "It would be a more stable way of collecting the tax. And we could then help to shape people's behavior because we could have lower tax for example on non-peak travel."
At the same hearing, in response to questions from lawmakers about a vehicle miles traveled tax and carbon fees, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said the Baker administration has "reservations around taxes and fees obviously," but added: "We aren't necessarily ruling any solution out, but really need to apply that thorough analysis to everything that we would consider down the road. There just needs to be some more questions answered relative to the true impacts and we continue to work with other states as they analyze these types of programs."
In the wake of a court ruling calling for economy-wide carbon emissions reductions, Pollack in June expressed to lawmakers a general commitment to reducing emissions from vehicles, while acknowledging that only 20 percent of the state's capital spending plan is dedicated to environmentally friendly expansion initiatives in the areas of transit, biking and walking.
State lawmakers and the Baker administration are trying to reduce carbon emissions to meet the requirements of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, with the administration facing a Supreme Judicial Court ruling requiring emissions cuts across multiple sources. Pollack said 40 percent of emissions come from transportation and she feels a responsibility to come up with solutions.
Facing questions from members of the House and Senate Global Warming and Climate Change committees, Pollack said state transportation officials were taking steps to integrate hybrid and plug-in vehicles into the state's fleet and to facilitate development near rapid transit systems so people can bike, walk or take trains to work.
Fifty percent of people who live within a half mile of transit systems walk, bike or use transit to get to work, she said, a higher rate than among populations living more than half a mile from transit. To hasten transportation-related emission reductions, she said, the state needs to figure out how to make those travel options more accessible to more people.
"If we want to succeed in changing transportation greenhouse gas emissions we have to give more people the ability to walk, bike and use transit in more communities throughout Massachusetts. It can't be limited just to people who are lucky enough to be able to afford to live in Boston or Cambridge or Brookline," Pollack said, mentioning the importance of the Green Line Extension and South Coast Rail.