Our Opinion: Gas tax hike idea deserves a hearing

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A Massachusetts business group has suggested something that might once have been unthinkable from a business organization — an increase in the state gasoline tax. It is an idea worth pursuing — with some caveats.

The Massachusetts Business Coalition on Transportation (MBCT), which is comprised of several business groups, asked the Legislature to consider a gasoline tax hike as a response to the serious traffic congestion problems facing the state, primarily in Eastern Massachusetts. The Coalition also advocated creation of a 21st Century Roadway Pricing Task Force that could explore all options to raise revenue to address the transportation crisis, including introducing tolls on roads other than the Turnpike, but it urged that the gas tax be increased as soon as possible.

Motorists in Massachusetts currently pay 24 cents a gallon in state gas tax, which is fractions of a penny below the national average. (For purposes of comparison, neighboring Connecticut pays just under 44 cents a gallon in taxes.) The groups in the coalition propose increases of between five and 25 cents a gallon, but going past Connecticut would seem to be a non-starter on Beacon Hill.

Each penny added to the state's gas tax could add $32 million in new revenue according to a report released earlier this month by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. This money could go a long way in repairing neglected state highways and bridges. When the state Legislature last raised the gas tax in 2013 it tied the tax in future years to the rate of inflation, a good idea that would have assured revenue hikes that was unfortunately overturned by referendum vote.

Gov. Baker is among many who acknowledge that eastern Massachusetts within the Route 128 belt around Boston is facing a transportation crisis, with traffic-congested roadways frustrating workers, hampering business and making it less likely that new business will want to come in. But while the Berkshires are mercifully spared the daily mess that confronts drivers in and around Boston, we have our own transportation needs to address and can't be expected to support a gas tax hike unless it has direct benefits for the county.

In its report to lawmakers, the Coalition stipulated that the revenue must be raised and distributed "in a fair and geographically-equitable way." James Rooney, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce and chair of the MBCT. said "Money raised in Springfield stays in the Springfield region," a practice that would extend to every region of the state. The Berkshires would need to see how this geographically-equitable concept is put into practice. ideally some of the revenue could be used for rail, as forging a rail link from Pittsfield and/or North Adams to Boston would have economic benefits for the county.

In March, House Speaker Robert DeLeo challenged the state's business community to be part of the solution for the state's transportation problems and the MBCT deserves credit for doing so with a bold proposal. Also in March, a poll by MassInc showed that 80 percent of state residents support the general idea of raising new revenue to spend on transportation infrastructure and public transportation. That percentage will drop when any specific ideas replace the general idea but there is an acknowledgment among residents that transportation issues must be addressed. Raising the gasoline tax is one way that will pay off quickly and we urge the Legislature to take seriously the MBCT's proposal.

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