It is embarassing for me to say, but I feel like I'm about the least-informed person in the Commonwealth about the gas-tax/toll-hike/transport-reform goat rodeo. I mean, I really do not know what the hell is going on, or why person X says Y, etc. All in all, the whole discussion seems to be a mighty headache … and yet, one can't exactly say it's unimportant. This is the Big Dig Culture issue.
Perhaps I am not the only one. So here's what I don't know:
- I do not know why it took the Patrick administration so long to present its plan for transportation reform. I do not know if the administration actually intended to wait until after the 'Pike board voted on the toll increases to present its plan, in order to put time pressure on the legislature to act before March 29.
[I have inserted Doug Rubin's responses to Charley's questions in italics throughout this post. -David] Why did it take so long? The problems we are trying to address in our transportation system took over 16 years to create. They span highway, airport and rail operations, and include various regional issues, environmental concerns, workforce issues, complicated bond covenants and financing schemes and pension and health care benefit reforms. In order to address these comprehensively, and to present a plan that is transparent and responsible for the long-term, we felt the need to consult with experts both inside and outside of state government, gain a true understanding of the complicated issues we inherited, and work with the Legislature to consider various alternatives.
We did not sit still while we were working on the reform plan. We followed the “reforms first” strategy – joining 49 other states in using civilian flaggers on construction projects, saving over $31 million at the Turnpike by eliminating managers and toll taker positions along with other significant reforms, and cutting $47 million from the MBTA through additional reforms. We also cut the development time for MassHighway projects by 40% and instituted a “scorecard” to increase transparency and accountability of construction projects.
We did not time this for the Turnpike board vote. In fact, we put off vote at the Turnpike as long as we responsibly could in order to give all of us time to work on a comprehensive solution. The financial situation at the Turnpike, despite the great efforts of Alan LaBovidge and his team, is such that we risk default on the bonds if we do not secure a new revenue stream by April 1. The timing is unfortunate, but underscores the serious nature of the problem we are facing in transportation.
- I don't know whether the legislature's apparent outrage at the 'Pike board's vote on the toll increase reflects a.) a clash of institutional prerogatives, b.) “political hardball”, or c.) genuine disappointment at the lack of reforms. I don't know what they think would be a good deal.
Legislative outrage over toll vote? That is probably a better question for members of the Legislature to answer. All I can say is that we have been working closing with Chairmen Wagner and Baddour, and feel that the dialogue has been very constructive to date. I think we all feel a sense of urgency to address this issue, both through reforms and by securing the long-term financial viability of our transportation infrastructure.
- I do not know if legislators — or which legislators — are to be taken at face value in complaining about the Turnpike, since the 'Pike has long been the stashing place for marginally-employable friends and family of legislators.
Legislators complaining about the Turnpike? I think legislators have legitimate concerns about the vote and the historical problems at the Turnpike. I think we have addressed a lot of these concerns with the new leadership at the Turnpike, but I take at face value the concerns raised by legislators.
- I do not know why the Pike board passing the toll increase jeopardizes a gas tax increase in the legislature. I suppose they don't believe that the board would actually roll back the toll increase if the lege indeed raises the gas tax. In any event, I can't believe that this standoff isn't something that could simply be addressed in the legislation itself: “This legislation requires the rescinding of the toll increases voted upon on date so-and-so.”
Does the toll increase jeopardize the reform plan? The Governor has been clear and unequivocal – he will not support both a toll increase and an increase in the gas tax. Even if the toll increase goes into effect, it can and will be rolled back – this is not an issue that should threaten the passage of the Governor's legislation. I understand that some legislators have legitimate concerns about their constituents dealing with a toll increase, and with some of the confusion around these issues. Again, I think the timing underscores the serious nature of the problems we are facing and the fact that inaction is no longer an option.
- I don't know what “reforms” legislators were looking for, outside of the current bill. I thought the reforms were supposed to be baked into the whole cake of re-organization and a gas tax increase. I do not know what a good and responsible bill — including reforms — would look like.
Reforms? The Senate bill is an excellent place to look for the reforms we need to get our transportation system back on track. We built our legislation on this strong foundation, and included other reforms as well. The Governor realizes that there are many good ideas for reforms out there, and welcomes any and all suggestions to help improve the bill. In addition, the Legislature will be holding a series of hearing over the next few weeks on this issue, which should also bring some new ideas to the discussion.
- I don't know what a good retirement age for the MBTA is. I will definitely say that 55 for a fully-vested pension, as Sec. Aloisi has proposed — is too young; one can reasonably expect to be productive through the early 60's, at least. I don't see any reason why MBTA pensions should be such an outlier in our culture.
MBTA retirement age? Our legislation attempts to bring both the Turnpike and MBTA benefits in line with the state system. This is consistent with the recommendations from the bi-partisan Transportation Finance Commission report. We remain open to other suggestions in this area.
- I do not know why the administration has to propose a hugely controversial alternative funding method right now to take over for diminishing gas tax revenue sometime in the indeterminate future. Here's a plan for our glorious future, when everyone's driving Priuses and Vespas: Raise the gas tax again.
Alternative funding plan? The thinking here was that we have suffered in the past by not getting ahead of problems and preparing for anticipated changes in consumer habits. A prime example of this is our state's reliance on capital gains for the budget – despite the well-known ups and downs of capital gains revenue, previous administrations did not plan ahead to address this problem and this is a major reason for our current budget shortfall (By the way, the Governor included in his most recent budget a plan to address this problem going forward.) The alternative funding method was a good faith effort on the part of the administration to prepare for a future that is mor
e environmentally responsible and less reliant on gas to power our vehicles.
- I do not know when Governor Patrick is going to use his considerable communication skills with the public to clearly outline this issue at some length — ie. through radio address, public meeting, YouTube, etc.; but when he does it won't be a moment too soon.
When will Governor Patrick communicate with the public? The Governor has been talking about this issue publicly for a long time. Last Friday, he gave a speech that is available on YouTube and elsewhere to outline the problem, review the reforms, and transparently detail where each penny of the gas tax increase would be used. All of this information is also available online. He has been available to the media regularly to promote the plan and answer questions, and plans to travel around the state to discuss his reform plan and its importance to our economic future with residents and local media outlets. We are committed to addressing this problem in an open, honest, and responsible way and look forward to the public debate.
OK, tell me what a goof and an ignoramus I am.