Saturday May 12, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The Berk shire Regional Transit Authority has received $1.8 million in state funding for each of the last five years.

A report by MassInc., a nonpartisan nonprofit from Boston, suggests that implementing one of two new regional funding streams would allow the state's 15 regional transportation agencies that include the BRTA to receive the additional money they need to provide services that promote economic growth.

Currently, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Greater Boston receives a disproportionate amount of the sales tax revenue from state communities that are served by regional transit agencies to close its annual operating deficits.

Berkshire County currently receives $1 for every $20 in sales tax revenue that goes out of the region to pay for the MBTA, which is the lowest ratio in the state, said Ben Forman of MassInc.

"We're over-investing in Boston," Forman said, "and under-investing in the RTAs."

On average, RTAs like the BRTA currently receive only one-third of their budget through state assistance, while the MBTA receives 57 percent of its budget through state funds.

"This study is a good fair analysis about beginning an adult conversation about where we can go," said BRTA Administrator Gary Sheppard during a forum on the report's findings that took place Friday at the BRTA's offices on Columbus Avenue.

Sheppard said a recent survey of 190 BRTA passengers done over the last six months found that 64 percent of the respondents didn't own cars.

"As we talk about the T, we have to be part of the conversation because we have folks who want to go to work and participate in their quality of life, and public transportation is essential to them," Sheppard said. "We'd like to provide more and better services and we think we can.

"One way to look at it is if the T is saying the sales tax is inadequate, then give us the sales tax because this report shows that we can get a lot of money back here," he said.

The report suggests that a 0.16 percent payroll tax collected at varying rates within discrete geographic areas would provide enough revenue to close the MBTA's annual operating deficits, which range between $140 million and $207 million, depending on how the tax is levied in communities served by RTAs.

In RTA service districts, a payroll tax at that rate would generate nearly $100 million in revenue, which is more than one and a half times what RTAs currently receive from the state.

Ben Forman, research director for MassInc., an independent public policy think tank, says the county is ‘over-investing in Boston’ and that
Ben Forman, research director for MassInc., an independent public policy think tank, says the county is ‘over-investing in Boston’ and that regional transportation agencies like the BRTA could get the money to grow if new funding methods are implemented. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

The reports claims RTAs could generate $183 million in revenue by implementing a 5 cent per mile tax on vehicle travel at a cost of $1.53 per week per registered vehicle.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who chairs the RTA's caucus in the Senate, believes the conclusions reached in the report are feasible.

"I think it's faulty to assume that because it's easy to raise the gas tax that that's the solution," he said. "When it comes to transportation, the way we've financed for too long is inadequate.

"If that requires us to come up with new ideas, and to do things that are a little more difficult, I'd rather do that than continue to exacerbate a longstanding problem that doesn't help this region," he said. "If anything, it hurts it."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224
On Twitter: @tonydobrow