Change to Mass. transportation bill seen unlikely
BOSTON (AP) -- After initiating what he called a "conversation" over how to modernize the state's infrastructure and erase chronic shortfalls in transportation funding, Gov. Deval Patrick is now squabbling with legislators over details of the bill he was delivered and is likely to end up with far less than he originally sought.
"I understand that governors don't always get what they prefer, and I respect the legislature's prerogative to take a different approach," Patrick said as he returned the bill to lawmakers with a change that would automatically raise the gasoline tax if tolls are removed from the western Massachusetts Turnpike.
Legislative leaders did not wait for Patrick to finish briefing reporters on the amendment before firing off a statement opposing it. As a result -- barring some last-minute meeting of the minds -- the House and Senate will almost certainly vote down the amendment, perhaps as early as Monday.
The governor, who has vowed not to sign the bill without the change, would then have little choice but to veto the bill in the face of a likely override. Another option might be to let the bill become law without his signature.
The Patrick administration launched the discussion in January with the release of an ambitious -- critics say too ambitious -- report calling for a 10-year, $13 billion capital investment to jump-start long-stalled projects including expansion of commuter rail to New Bedford and rail service between Boston and Springfield. The money would also upgrade existing roads and bridges and close the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's operating deficit.
Underlying the plan was a long-held sense of regional inequity -- a belief that while the Big Dig highway project had improved travel in Boston, it left the state saddled with enormous debt that severely constricted its ability to address transportation needs elsewhere in Massachusetts.
Shortly after the report, Patrick, who is not seeking re-election, filed a budget request with the Legislature asking for $1.9 billion in new taxes, including a hike in the income tax, for both transportation and education initiatives. But it was clear almost immediately that lawmakers were skittish about backing a tax package of such magnitude when the economic recovery was sluggish at best and many constituents were still feeling aftereffects of the recession.
In March, House Speaker Robert DeLeo told business leaders that any tax proposal the House embraced would be "far more narrow in scope and of a significantly smaller size" than what was proposed by the governor. Weeks later, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray unveiled a transportation plan that included $500 million in new taxes, including higher gas and cigarette taxes.
Patrick ripped the plan as a "fiscal shell game" and promised a veto if it wasn't altered. He later signaled willingness to compromise when the Senate added enhanced revenue that would bring total amount of new annual transportation revenue to $800 million by 2018, still far shy of the governor's goal of $1.2 billion.
The latest dispute centers on a longstanding but little-known agreement to eliminate tolls on the turnpike west of the Interstate 95 interchange in 2017. Residents west of Boston have long chafed at paying tolls that helped finance the Big Dig when motorists to the north and south were not tolled.
Patrick says the bill does not account for the estimated $135 million a year that would disappear along with the tolls, rendering the $800 million target unachievable. His amendment would raise the gas tax by the amount necessary -- probably 3 to 5 cents a gallon -- to offset lost revenue when the tolls come down and assure borrowers that bonds used for transportation projects would be fully repaid.
But legislative leaders say the administration never raised the issue of the western tolls until after both chambers had passed versions of the bill and a conference committee was resolving differences. DeLeo also dismissed Patrick's claim that the revenues simply don't add up.
"The numbers that have been passed, the numbers that have been stated in our revenue package, are real numbers, are not fictitious," he said. "And I see no reason for me, as the speaker of the House, to ask the membership ... to be voting for a further gas tax increase."
There would still be time to address the toll question before 2017, lawmakers contend, and they point out the bill encourages transportation officials to pursue other revenue options, such as tolls on the New Hampshire border.
Patrick isn't buying that view.
"It has been the unwillingness to deal with these issues and looking the other way for a long, long time that has gotten us where we are," he said.
Rafael Mares, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that advocates for public transit, said in a statement that the Legislature's bill provides at best a temporary fix to the state's transportation woes.
The conversation Patrick launched will have to begin anew in a couple of years, Mares said, "to map out a more comprehensive plan to solve longstanding problems and lay the groundwork for the reliable, affordable, modern transportation system (Massachusetts) wants and needs."
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