Our Opinion: Gimmicky fee hikes wrong for Berkshires

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There are a couple of worrisome aspects to Gov. Baker's proposal to increase fees for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, and they both involve what state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox refers to as the "Commonwealth of Boston."

The state is in dire need of additional revenue to address its transportation shortcomings, from passenger rail expansion to the west to overdue improvements to state roads and bridges. An increase in the state's gas tax would be a logical way to raise the needed revenue, and even though we drive more in the rural Berkshires we would be driving on better maintained roads and over safer bridges. The governor is not opposed to fee increases, however, even though the distinction between the taxes and fees is not dramatic.

In his January budget, the governor calls for an increase in the per-trip fees for ride-hailing services from 20 cents per ride to $1 per ride. ("Baker's plan to hike fees worries some in Berkshires," Eagle, Feb. 17.) Uber and Lyft point out that this increase will penalize people without access to public transportation. From a Berkshire perspective, while Uber and Lyft are not a huge presence they are a growing one, and this five-fold fee hike could put enough of a dent in their customer base to stop that promising growth in its tracks.

As or more worrisome is Gov. Baker's proposal to direct 70 percent of this additional revenue to the money pit known as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, abandoning the traditional 50-50 split state revenue among municipalities. The Berkshires already generate $30 million annually for the MBTA, even though county taxpayers don't use public rail in Boston beyond perhaps an occasional visit for business or pleasure. It is indefensible to demand even more Berkshire revenue for the MBTA through the fee hikes on ride-hailing services operating in the Berkshires and trying to make a profit in a relatively sparsely populated area.

Changing the traditional 50-50 split on revenue would set a terrible precedent as well. If it happens once it will only be a matter of time before the "commonwealth of Boston" finds another reason for a revenue split that benefits the city and neighboring municipalities as the expense of communities outside the Route 128 belt.

We understand that Boston has a severe problem with traffic congestion and the MBTA, an endless source of frustration to the governor, isn't carrying its weight. So perhaps Mr. Baker should consider the proposal of state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Lenox Democrat, and raise ride-sharing fees to $2 per ride in the Boston metro area only, with all the money dedicated to the MBTA.

If the governor wants to seriously address transportation problems across the state, however, he needs to embrace a fairer, more comprehensive solution. Tinkering with fees won't cut it, especially if the fee hikes are unfair to the western end of the state and open the door to potentially unfair proposals in the future.



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