Tough Transit Talk

Jim Aloisi, who recently stepped down as MA secretary of transportation, put out the call for a coalition of activists and progressives to fix transportation. In our podcast today, he said that feds from Pres. Obama down are ready, but we need to act and do so now.

The podcast appears after the jump.Click its arrow to play.  

“The days of highway expansion in Massachusetts are over,” declared Aliosi. Now is the time to act and particularly to level the playing field by developing passenger rail and public transit.

He ticked off such benefits as sparking industrial development and job creation, improved public health and safety, and increased energy security. He figures that the federal government under President Barack Obama is ripe for aiding just such development. What we need here is a coalition of the affected group in all those areas, including transit specific, health, our legislative and executive branch leaders, energy and more.

We discussed some of the key issues in his 12-page exit letter he sent to Gov. Deval Patrick. These include funding rail projects, getting the MBTA solvent, shaking votes and funding from the legislature to enable transportation improvements, and making multi-modal transit practical for all of us.

Aloisi is not shy about proposing innovations. He’s a proponent for VMT (vehicle miles traveled) payments, as proven in other states. That is big here, where the legislature is frightened of raising the gas tax to pay for existing highway needs, much less 21st Century problems. He also talked about the  leadership and support he had from Lt. Gov. Tim Murry on making commuter and freight rail real and viable for us.

He calls for courage and leadership. Those should be on the part of the transportation and other activists he worked with and hoped to empower as secretary. Also that would be our governor, lieutenant governor and a cadre of state and U.S. legislators who are champions of these goals. He also named commonwealth mayors who already fight for improved transit and equitable funding. He says that the public really hasn’t been broadly sold on this shift, but that they are hungry for such change and for the leadership to get us there.

We dealt with funding issues, which are at the core of many of our transit woes here. He has no patience with what he calls the gimmicks, like refinancing unmanageable T debt. He calls that delaying the day of reckoning and hiding the problem so the the public isn’t aware of it and our lawmakers don’t have to deal with it. Instead, he said there needs to be a restructuring of that debt (including relief of the $2 billion Big Dig portion laid on the T, with that VMT and some combination of sales-tax allocation to make the system workable).

He calls for public pressure and now, not in five or two years. Listen in as he talks about what has to be done. Many progressives can bring these issues to their own organizations and be part of that catalyzing coalition he envisions.

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16 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. James Aloisi WROTE the $quot;gimmick$quot;

    I would be more receptive to this pitch from Mr. Aloisi if was not the author of the "gimmick" that transferred Big Dig debt to the MBTA.

    For example, I note the following:

    Aloisi should know. He was the Turnpike Authority's lawyer from 1989 through 1996 and drafted the law that made the agency responsible for the Big Dig's finances. He now regrets that decision.

    I'm glad that he now has a more enlightened view of transportation policy. Nevertheless, I still have trouble embracing this posturing from a key architect of the current transportation disaster.

    • Then hear him out

      Give him a shot and respond to his suggestions if they strike you as good or otherwise.


      • I agree with many or most of his suggestions

        I would like to see us place rather more emphasis on steps we are able to take now, and rather less emphasis on reasons to continue doing nothing.

        Let me cite an example. I think his observation that federal funding ratios must move from 50/50 towards 90/10 is absolutely correct. I also think that we should therefore act as though the federal government will ultimately come to the same conclusion -- so that when they do, we are fully prepared to move ahead. This is what I mean by leadership.

        At the moment, Massachusetts is suffering because we did not do the decades of regional planning needed to have meaningful "shovel ready" projects ready to go. It is great that Mr. Aloisi now sees the wisdom in the direction he so steadfastly worked against while he was a key and influential agent in setting and executing Massachusetts transportation policy.

        I welcome him to the team. I sincerely hope that he will now apply his energy in this more positive direction.

        • Just so

          Good points and I choose to believe Aloisi when he says Obama and his crew are ready, that they need the spur.

          I'm not in those interest groups he mentioned, but I'll agitate a bit with my federal legislators and see what response I get.

          Sooner is better.

  2. I have to say

    I was impressed with the ideas he brought to the table. Whatever anyone thinks of Aloisi, he certainly doesn't lack a vision of how Massachusetts transportation could be better -- and properly funded. The VPM chip was something I was very much opposed to when it was first brought up months and months ago -- and I still don't like it as much as a gas tax increase -- but it's not a terrible idea and, according to him, is more palatable to some politicians. If it's the sort of thing that can get legislative approval, while an increase to the gas tax, thus far, hasn't been (even at 5 cents from my sources), then it's really not a bad idea to look into.

    • VMP is a terrible idea

      regressive, dirty, inefficient.

      I've heard Aloisi say, basically, yeah, but it is expedient.

      We should help him redirect his efforts and energies into greener channels by making VMP more "unpalatable" to Beacon Hill than the gas tax.

      • Workable Politically

        He wasn't delighted with VMT either, although he sort of likes the equity of it. However, as you point out, he figures we might be able to pass it.

        The legislature has chanted, "No new taxes," endlessly and frustrated Gov. Patrick's every effort and program. The gas tax, for one, is low and long overdue for a hike, but the GC won't raise it.

        The VMT as proven in several other states would be fair enough to answer the objections of exurban folk who typically driver longer distances than city types. Its premium rates for urban and rush-hour driving would make it a pay-as-you-go version of a gas tax. He figures we ought to do a pilot to prove it here.

        • Forgive me

          Aloisi is ... a proponent for VMT (vehicle miles traveled) payments, as proven in other states.

          Which other states have "proven" VMT?  To my knowledge, it hasn't been rolled out in any, and has gotten little more than bluster out in Oregon.  Perhaps that's because it's expensive, subject to technology that doesn't have 100% uptime, and is an invasion of privacy.  Want to tax miles?  Just use JiffyLube odometer readings.  Can't tax out of state?  Ask the taxpayer to report out of state mileage.  We ask them to report out of state purchases (use tax) and non-W2 income (private sales, etc).

          • Lead or Be Left

            It's a lot more than bluster. Consider some of the big reports, like here, that detail plus and minus, progress to date, and perhaps most important that 15 states are considering VMT.

            It works, it's coming, and Massachusetts is one of those places that have been stuck without courage and leadership from the legislature in enabling funding of transportation improvements.

            I suppose we could wait five years until a bunch of states have proven the positive side and benefited. It looks to me that at the minimum we have plenty enough data to get our own pilot in the works. Progressiveness, action and all those concepts...

            • My thoughts on VMT aside...

              I questioned the claim that it was "proven."  Your link doesn't establish VMT as proven.  Got anything else?

              • Use the tubes

                There's a ton of reporting out there on VMT. The consensus is clearly that the tests work. I won't play secretary, but consider here and here and here. Check on your own as well.

                A negative, NIH view is here.

                I think Aloisi's two key ideas are worth a lot more than picking at any particular. One, we need to act now with some combination of taxes and/or VMT. Two, this can work here and get us fed money only if we have a coalition of groups pushing for it.

                • erm...

                  I won't play secretary

                  and you also won't answer the question.

                  The fact is, VMT hasn't been rolled out anywhere in America.  Ergo, it hasn't been "proven" to work anywhere in America, not in "the wild."

                  I'm well aware that lots of folks are talking about it.  I'm also well aware that the folks talking about either (a) have something to sell (electronics, services, or consulting, or (b) are blatantly using this as a way to get around the disaffection for gas taxes.

                  As I wrote above, I'm not interested in debating VMT.  I'm merely interested in finding out if it is indeed a "proven" in other states, not merely talked about in public policy papers, but actually rolled out.

                  I still have seen no evidence of the claim that it is proven.  You made that claim -- can you back it up?

                  • Pilots work

                    The tests have indeed been proven. If you refuse to believe that, tunnel down in the widely published Oregon results to see. That's where I won't do detailed research for you, put it up, and sit back while you try to find flaws or rephrase things. I'm not a huge VMT proponent and that's your job if you choose to accept it (play Mission Impossible music here).

                    This technology and concept is just out of pilot there and entering in a few other places. Initially the fears included that it would prove technologically impossible, that the GPS link would necessarily invade privacy, and there there would be no way to calculate the miles traveled to give non-urban folk a fair shake. Those are not problems, as in Aloisi's chat and the many references.

                    Here, he asks that we get some volunteers to give it a shot in Massachusetts. The analyzed and published results would allow for fine-tuning if we differ from the Puget Sound tests as well as let the skeptical raise their objections.

                    I say, yes, our legislature won't pass a gas tax. We need some cash flow for transportation now. Let's do our pilots here and prove them for us or identify the problems here and for us.

                  • Beyond the pilots in the US

                    Other countries do have it. Did you listen to the show?

                    That said, I agree, stomv: I'm skeptical of VMT. I would much prefer an increase to the gas tax. However, I know that our transportation system is a mess, precisely because we don't have the right kind of funding for it. People look at all the road construction and think "what's wrong? Stuff's getting done," without realizing that we keep on borrowing and borrowing to get it done. We can't purely borrow ourselves out of this mess -- and even if we could, we shouldn't, because we'll end up paying twice as much in the end.

                    Do I want VMT over a gas tax increase? No. Would I take a strictly regulated VMT that wouldn't keep track of where people drive, only how much they drive, over nothing? Sure. Do I think it's more regressive than a gas tax? Yes. Do I think that all drivers should be given an incentive  and/or disincentive to drive less, even those in a Prius? Sure. A gas tax probably does all those things better, but the point is we aren't going to get an increase to the gas tax right now.

                    Aloisi seems to think a VMT would be easier to get through, maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong. But I can say that not even a 5 cent gas tax would have passed when the gas tax was being discussed. Maybe another bad year or two will get the gas tax more momentum, maybe it won't. I don't think we should let perfect be the enemy of good, though.  

        • Pay-as-you-go?

          "Its premium rates for urban and rush-hour driving would make it a pay-as-you-go version of a gas tax."

          And what about a gas tax is not "pay-as-you-go"?

          You get poorer mileage in urban driving and rush-hour, so that amounts to a "premium rate".

          Furthermore, I question your claims about VMT being "fair enough". I don't see anything "fair" about a mileage tax that treats Hummers and Priuses (or even Corollas) the same, when the Hummer does much more damage to roadways due (primarily) to its much greater mass.

  3. Do not like the VMT

    Very interesting discussion on the VMT. To me it is too manipulative.  How easy will it be to adjust rates, premiums, based on where you live, what time you drive, the state of the state and the need for more funds?  Sounds like they could be increased and adjusted on a whim.  I think that the cost would cancel revenue benefits. What about glitches, errors, computer failures that will cause hours on the phone trying to resolve. How many new employees needed to run the program?  How many new friend/family employment opportunities?

    Just an overall bad idea.

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