Our Opinion: Face funding reality on infrastructure
Much ado was made about last week's meeting with President Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi because it was polite and civil and no one stormed out in anger. That's how low the bar is today when it comes to bipartisanship in Washington, D.C. Essentially the trio agreed to agree that something should be done about the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
That day, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney replied to a question from Fox Business Network reporter Maria Bartimoro by declaring that the Democrats want to "make a show" regarding infrastructure and predicted that they would sabotage an agreement by insisting that protecting environmental laws and other regulations be a part of it. So much for a federal infrastructure plan. If anything is to be accomplished it will be up to the states.
In the case of Massachusetts, Governor Baker and the Legislature are in agreement that the state's transportation network is in need of a substantial upgrade. The major dispute, not surprisingly, is how to pay for it.
Governor Baker is sticking to his pledge of no new taxes (the governor has supported fee increases, however, over the years.) It is unclear, then, how he expects to fund major improvements to road and bridge projects. The Legislature, in contrast, is determined to find ways to generate revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat, says new taxes, user fees, new tolls and congestion tolling should all be considered.
"We've run out of road," said the senator to the State House News Service. "By pricing our roads accordingly we can use our roads more efficiently."
Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, promises to make a transportation plan with a revenue package his top priority this session. He indicated that a core component would be an increase in the gas tax, which is logical enough given that it is vehicles that put the strain on the state's road and bridge infrastructure.
The state's gas tax of 26.5 cents a gallon is 30th in the nation, so it is hard to argue that residents are being overcharged. (For perspective, Pennsylvania's state-leading gas tax is 58.7 cents per gallon and neighboring New York and Connecticut are fifth and eighth respectively at 45.6 and 43.5 cents per gallon.) The state raised the gas tax by 3 cents a gallon in 2013, which Sen. Boncore argues was insufficient at the time. The Legislature also indexed the gas tax to rise with inflation six years ago, an action that was unfortunately repealed by voters through a referendum. Additional revenue was lost and it will not be easy to get the support of the governor, who backed that referendum campaign, to go along with a gas tax hike.
The governor said last week that he thought "congestion" was at the root of many of the state's infrastructure problems, which suggests he might be open to congestion tolls (or perhaps fees to make it more palatable to him). Congestion, while a major problem in Boston and surrounding communities, has not been a serious Berkshire issue since the days of "GE traffic" in Pittsfield. Whatever revenue solution is brought forth to address highway infrastructure must be fair to the entire state, not tailored specifically to Boston and environs.
On a related front, Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat, argued last week for an increase in stagnant Chapter 90 funding for local road projects, which has been $200 million for six of the last seven years. The representative argued that because of rising costs, $200 million doesn't go as far as it did when that was established as the baseline Chapter 90 allotment in fiscal 2012. All communities are impacted by this shortfall but perhaps none more than the small Berkshire hilltowns whose roads are hit particularly hard by the ravages of winter.
Something has to give — besides Berkshire roads and bridges. Governor Baker and the Legislature must establish an increased revenue stream to address the very real highway infrastructure problems faced across Massachusetts.
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