Berkshire lawmakers say transportation bill would be beneficial, despite gas tax increase

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BOSTON — Berkshire County lawmakers say Western Massachusetts residents would benefit from the proposed gasoline and other tax increases that would provide necessary money for local infrastructure and transportation across the state.

A major bill passed by the House on March 4 would raise about $600 million by increasing taxes on gasoline, corporations and rental companies and raising fees on ride-hailing services. The next day, the House agreed on a 10-year investment plan worth about $18 billion, earmarked for transportation and infrastructure projects.

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said the proposals are the result of a compromise that would bring "a good chunk of money" for Berkshire officials to "use wisely," while state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said the county finally will be able to receive money necessary for better roads, bridges and culverts.

But, both lawmakers are aware that both bills now will go to the Senate, where they might be significantly altered — to the extent that an agreement might not be reached before the end of the formal session July 31.

The House-passed bond bill includes boosting Chapter 90 money to $300 million, a 50 percent increase, providing cities and towns with crucial resources for investments such as highway and road construction. It also calls for $1.75 billion for the design, construction and repair of non-federally-aided roadway and bridge projects — including $70 million for the small bridge program — and $1.25 billion for construction, resurfacing, and improvements of bridges and approaches.

Grants worth $25 million would be available to transportation management associations that could provide shuttle services between existing transportation facilities and major employment centers. Revenue generated from the proposed tax reform, $10 million would go to support transportation services in rural areas.

"I think it's a recognition that the infrastructure throughout the commonwealth needs to be addressed, has been ignored for too long," Pignatelli said. "And we needed to find a way to help pay for it, and I think that's what we've done. If we don't do something to help out cities and towns, I truly believe that there are towns that will go bankrupt trying to deal with their infrastructure expenses."

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The House's proposal would increase taxes on gas and diesel by 5 cents and 9 cents, respectively; and fees on ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft from 20 cents per ride to $1.20 for a nonshared ride.

Fees on carpool rides would remain unchanged, whereas an extra $1 fee would be imposed on every luxury trip. The language of the bill ensures that consumers would not be burdened with the extra costs.

The legislation also would create a tiered structure to tax companies that would see businesses racking up $1 billion in sales pay at least $150,000. Currently, the minimum corporate tax is set at $456. Rental car companies would see their tax exemption on rental car company fleets removed.

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Barrett admits that some aspects of the bill "could have been done better." For instance, he proposed a gradual increase in the gas tax that would have seen it go up by 2 cents for two consecutive years, before reaching 5 cents in the third year. Barrett said it would have cushioned the potential impact of the raises on consumers.

"I was very intrigued by that proposal," Pignatelli said. "Unfortunately, the Ways and Means [Committee] recommended to just rip the Band-Aid off and they get 5 cents."

But, Barrett is particularly content with the increase in Chapter 90, as well as a provision that promises a further study into the possible expansion of commuter rail services from Boston to Pittsfield.

"That's a big deal," he said. "What is good about [the bill], and what Western Mass. legislators really had to fight for, was to make sure all the money was not going to the [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority]."

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And Pignatelli agreed that the House's bills are potentially much more beneficial for Berkshire County than some of Gov. Charlie Baker's proposals. The Republican wanted to direct 70 percent of the revenue from new fees on ride-hailing services toward the MBTA's budget, which Pignatelli vocally opposed.

The current proposal would see a proportional division of 25 percent of the revenue from nonshared rides — or 50 percent from luxury rides — between cities and towns based on the number of rides that originated within that community before any money goes to the Commonwealth Transportation Fund and Transit Authority Fund.

Pignatelli said he recognizes that raising the gas tax always poses a challenge, but the proposed increase should not heavily impact the consumer's pocket. And he said the benefits outweigh the costs, calling extra Chapter 90 money "a lifeline to cities and towns for repairing and maintaining roadways."

"I don't want to pay anything more at the pump. But, when I know that what I'm paying is coming back to fund the roads and bridges and the culverts, that's a different scenario," he said. "And I think that's what will make it a little bit easier for people to swallow."

But, Barrett and Pignatelli are worried that the Senate's proposal might be much more expensive, potentially imposing even more fees and taxes. Both say they would oppose an even greater increase in the gas tax should lawmakers from the other chamber call for it.

"Anything more than the 5 cents that we did, I believe, is going to be seriously problematic for those of us in the Berkshires and we're going to have to revisit that again," Pignatelli said.


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