That gas tax idea floated for Great Barrington? It hit a roadblock in Boston

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's a familiar story: There are more roads and bridges in need of repair than there is money to fix them.

But some towns also want to fix this shortfall by taxing drivers at the gas pumps. And those towns have found little traction, since a local-option gas tax would have to be agreeable to more than just a few towns — it has to be approved in the Legislature, where it sits in the committee on House Ways and Means, having been sent there in September.

"There's a lot of opposition," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. The Lenox Democrat is the lead sponsor of a bill that would give towns the option to tax fuel.

"What looks like something very simple in Great Barrington and Lee is very complicated at the Statehouse," he said.

First, town officials in Lee, then Great Barrington, asked legislators for authorization to collect a tax, up to 5 cents per gallon, that would go into a dedicated fund to pay only for construction and upkeep of roads and bridges, as well as other infrastructure, including sidewalks and public parking lots.

Pignatelli, along with Pittsfield Democrats Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and state Sen. Adam Hinds, are co-sponsors of bills that would allow Great Barrington and Lee to impose the tax and give the towns some direction.

Pignatelli said the bill is still "stuck," in part, due to "anti-tax fever."

The state's gasoline tax remains at 24 cents per gallon after an attempt to raise it three years ago. But Pignatelli also said attitudes change, like they did in Lee, for instance, when people realize the gas tax revenue "stays here to fix the road you've been screaming at me to fix."

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But there's another reason for "pockets of resistance" across the state, according to Pignatelli.

"It's not cut and dried, even in my own district," he said. "People in towns that don't have gas stations — they would pay the tax at the pump but not have the benefit."

But this is why it is simply an option, he added, that would only affect the town imposing the tax.

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"[There is] no need for towns to worry about other towns," he said. "If we in state government can't generate enough revenue to support towns to fix their roads and bridges, then we should not step in the way."

But as Great Barrington's early advocate of the gas tax found, the roadblock is frustrating.

"We want it to happen faster," said former Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton, who raised the issue at a meeting last spring, just before his term was up.

In 2016, Stanton had estimated that the tax could possibly pull about $500,000 per year into town coffers.

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But the impulse hasn't died with Stanton — new member Kate Burke recently said she wanted to press for it, too.

It is no surprise why: Hinds said the tax "seems like the intuitive response," given statewide research by the Massachusetts Municipal Association that found that what the state gives to communities for roads and bridges is insufficient — to the tune of of about $500 million.

"For our towns to maintain our roads and bridges, we would need something more like $700 million [in state money] a year," Hinds said. "We instead end up with this $200 million. That's a big gap, so all of us grapple with how do you give our towns what they need."

Hinds said he and his colleagues would do their best to keep the effort alive.

"We'll continue to work it and push it."

Farley-Bouvier could not be reached for comment.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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