Transportation funding reform: Make it happen!

I am stoked that the powers that be are talking about a major transportation investment. DeLeo mentioned it in his press release; Terry Murray has mentioned it; and according to her the DOT will soon make recommendations to the legislature. All are saying the solution won’t be limited to just the MBTA; other regional transit operations will be involved, and hopefully properly funded and improved.

Patrick has made transportation a top priority this year, and the Legislature has developed a consensus that something needs to be done to address an estimated shortfall of about $1 billion a year to maintain the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, regional bus systems, and state highways. Murray, in her speech, plans to cite significant needs, including a $2.2 trillion (??? typo?) backlog of infrastructure projects at the MBTA.

But she does not specifically endorse a tax increase. Instead, she notes that the Legislature had previously demanded “reform before revenue,” which sparked a 2009 overhaul that eliminated the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. She said that change, plus an increase in the sales tax that staved off toll hikes and MBTA fare increases, helped the state “overcome some of its most immediate problems” with its transportation system.

“It is now possible to envision a better future for the Department of Transportation, where it was not before,” she plans to say.

We also heard old friend Jim Aloisi on WBUR this morning, saying that transportation revenue should the be source of transport funding; and rather unhelpfully talking up his old tracker plan whereby motorists would be taxed per mile driven. Not gonna happen.

The better way to fund this stabilization and improvement would be through the income tax. The state’s transportation infrastructure is about as universal a public good as it gets; it’s a necessity for everyone, and everyone benefits from its improvement. The income tax is a perfectly proper place to go for those funds.

I would also support an increase in the gas tax, though naturally there’s resistance. For one, anything that discourages driving big, inefficient, polluting vehicles is to the good. But even a 10-cent tax means that a 15-gallon fill-up would cost an extra $1.50 — not much — with respect, even for those who live in rural areas. Compare that to the amount that T fares have risen over the last few years, and it’s really not much. T riders are people who are not sitting in traffic, and creating much less pollution and CO2. (This is true, even though Aloisi said it.)

You have to make choices. The wrong choice is to let things wither on the vine, as we’ve been doing.


25 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. T bus riders are sitting in traffic

    or, rather, suffering through it. The difference is that they’re not taking up nearly as much space in the travel lane or in terms of parking spaces.

  2. Someone still needs to explain to me

    why people driving between Framingham and Newton are required to pay tolls to fund a road in Boston, while people who use that road in Boston when driving in from the south pay no tolls at all for it.

    I’ve got no problem paying a toll coming from the west into Boston proper to fund improvements in Boston, assuming those driving in from other suburbs are asked to pay a similar share. I’ve got a huge problem being asked to shoulder the cost of a road when I’m not even using that road, while many who actually use the road aren’t paying extra for it.

    • If you are referring to the Mass Pike

      The toll you are paying covers the entire Pike – snow plowing, repair, maintenance. The road extends into Boston after the Newton exit but it’s all the Pike. You could take Route 9 and avoid the tolls.

      • No. You are wrong. The toll I am talking about

        is being used to “pay for overhead, maintenance, and capital costs associated with the MHS’s nontolled roads, bridges, and tunnels,’’ according to an SJC ruling. The court has explicitly permitted Pike toll money to be used to fund roads that are not the Turnpike.

        Let me repeat that if it’s not clear. Turnpike toll money is being used to fund the cost of depressing the Central Artery. That’s got nothing to do with the Pike, just because you can take the Turnpike to the Artery. People who actually drive on the Central Artery from the South Shore do not pay any toll to use the road.

        It may be convenient for others in the state to use western suburban Pike commuters as an ATM to fund projects elsewhere, but it is not fair. Period. A higher gas tax may not be appealing, but it is based on consumption regardless of where you live. Adding a specific cost to one and only one road to fund some completely different other project is not fair.

        As the Globe story about the case explains:

        The ruling came in a 2009 suit filed in Middlesex Superior Court that challenged the constitutionality of forcing turnpike commuters to pay for the Big Dig when people who actually drove through the project — which included depressing the old elevated Central Artery in downtown Boston and building a new tunnel to Logan Airport — were driving roads toll-free. “The plaintiffs claim that the MHS tolls are unconstitutional taxes,’’ Gants wrote. But under the state constitution, “there is no constitutional prohibition against toll revenues from certain highways and tunnels being used to pay the expenses of other highways and tunnels

        • So here's an idea...

          You’re absolutely right that it isn’t fare that Pike users are tolled but other highway users aren’t. That Interstates aren’t tolled are the result of Federal policy, by and large. So, here’s my proposal: higher gas tax, but no higher-gas-tax for the gas stations on the Pike. This way Pike users can always access the lower-priced gas at no additional cost, helping to level out the fact that they pay tolls but nobody else does.

          In the mean time, MBTA riders are also helping to pay for the Central Artery. After all, the environmental mitigation required because of the CAT was an extension of MBTA services. Those services cost more than the revenue they’ll bring in, and as a result, higher transit fares.

          I would love to see transportation reform which included (a) a significant gas tax increase, (b) elimination of all Mass Pike tolls past Newton*, (c) reduction or elimination “gov’t hack” positions, and (d) significant boost in funding for all mass transit in the state, MBTA and otherwise.

          * Why past Newton? I want to preserve the option and infrastructure for a congestion charge for Boston. I also want to help ensure that it’s cheaper to take commuter rail from Newton (etc) than it is to drive. The tolls help provide that cost incentive now. Still, this isn’t the most important part of my so-called proposal.

        • Everybody is a part of everything anyway

          as Donovan said.

          You are right that it’s unfair to tax only one superhighway that is part of the transportation network that includes the central artery. But you are wrong that the transportation network “has nothing to do with the Pike.”

          I-90 is connected to the artery. Every city and town in Massachusetts, from Gosnold to Williamstown, is connected economically to the economic benefits of the transportation network, including the artery and of the MBTA.

          Drawing a pretend line around your own town or neighborhood or self in the midst of all the complex interdependencies is a fool’s game and is demonstrably false. Things are much more complicated than that.

          • Oh please

            I commuted between Framingham and Newton for years. That’s no more “connected” to the Artery than commuting betwee Plymouth and Quincy. Why don’t they have to pay too? Either make everyone pay highway tolls fund the Artery – or at least everyone in eastern Mass – or no one. Do not tell me that it’s OK to put a toll on commuters between Framingham and Newton to specifically pay for a project in Boston when people actually using that project don’t have to pay a toll. That’s just ludicrous. It’s like hiking the sales tax in Norwood and Sharon to pay for the Artery but nowhere else.

            You want to raise the gas tax to pay for a transportation project? Fine. But don,t just tax

            • ...oops sorry mobile keyboard ...

              Wanted to say don’t just tax a few people based on where they live if where they live isn’t even where the project is.

  3. Raise the gas tax

    Voters won’t love it, but they’ll understand.

    • Not sure about that

      if gas prices weren’t already so debilitating, maybe. But it still hurts to pay the $3.+ per gallon we are handing over as our current transfer of Main St. wealth up to the oil companies. Maybe taxing the oil companies is a better idea, with a stipulation that the cost can’t be transferred to consumers.

      • How do you know gas prices will go up?

        There’s evidence oil companies manipulate gas prices to compensate for state taxes.

        • That's a good point.

          In a a reasonable world, prices don’t have to go up in response to a gas tax. The tax could easily be absorbed by the oil companies. But we don’t live in a reasonable world anymore, so I would imagine our gas prices would end up comparable to CT, which run about .10 to .15 /gal higher.

      • There's always an argument against

        If the price of gas are low, then the tax has a huge percentage impact, and people cry foul. If the price of gas is high, then the tax has a tiny percentage impact, but prices are high so people cry foul.

        If the gas tax went up 10 cents tonight at midnight and nobody told you about it, you wouldn’t even notice it. The gas prices fluctuated from $3.34 to $4 to $3.30 to $4 to $3.40 over the past year alone (source). The dime would be “in the noise” and yet people scream over its impact. Meanwhile, our transportation infrastructure isn’t self-funding.

      • Gasoline is about 25 cents/gallon more in New York State

        than in Massachusetts. About 5 or 6 cents/gallon more in Maine. Close to a dime a gallon more in Vermont. (data from

  4. Although I am not supporting state tax increases of any kind

    in the current environment, the income tax would be the best idea, as progressive as possible. The sales, gas and other taxes are regressive; we need to level the playing field not expand the disparity. Glad Mr. Aloisi’s tracker plan is not going to happen. That would have been awful. I like the new Mass Pike toll overhaul idea. However we can only hope this isn’t step one toward Aloisi’s tracking you every minute of every day plan. I will, at this point, have faith that it’s not.

    • Evidence gas tax is regressive?

      There’s plenty of evidence a gas tax is more fair than you’d think.

      • Yes, this is the debate about how rural people don't exist

        and there are no people outside of I-495, and the world is flat. Been there, don’t have time for it now.

        • We already subsidize highways and private-auto travel

          It really bugs me when people think that auto drivers pay their own way. We/they don’t.

          Highways don’t pay for themselves — Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.

          Highways “pay for themselves” less today than ever. Currently, highway “user fees” pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads and streets.

          – from a U.S. PIRG report

          And that doesn’t even count all the public space that’s been given over to motor vehicles — for driving, for parking …

          Why should someone who chooses to live near where they work subsidize someone else who has chosen to commute 50 miles a day? Why should other people who don’t travel much subsidize my trip if I decide to take a driving vacation through New England?

          • OMG This is why one shouldn't participate when hurried

            I grabbed that youtube video without paying attention to the owner of the page. So if it can be changed or deleted that might be a good idea. I really don’t want to be associated with the page owners views on religion.

          • We already subsidies profitable corporations and the wealthiest among us

            and they persistently try to transfer the tax burden to the middle class, lower incomed people and the poor. Elizabeth Warren has the right message, and even though it ended up being twisted around and made controversial (see how they keep trying) it is still the right message. Promoting regressive taxes helps the Republicans and the plutocracy, not the people.

      • Logic is the Evidence

        The gas tax is a flat sales tax. Yes, it is more progressive than a sales tax on some other goods (i.e. food or tap water) that are purchased more by low-income people. But, it is clearly more regressive than the income tax or, say, a sales/excise tax on only cars costing $25,000 or more. Because it taxes something that poor people are less likely to buy than rich people, it may be “more fair” than it seems at first glance. But it’s hardly a progressive tax.

        Need more “evidence”? Check out this Mass Budget and Policy piece on the existing gas tax in Massachusett and the 2009 proposal to increase it by 19 cents:

        You’ll see that any increase in the gas tax costs (as a percentage of annual income) low-income people far more than higher-income individuals. Differences in gas usage are not enough to make up for this regressivity.

        And, in my opinion, the environmental benefit of the gas tax is not enough to justify taxing poor people more and increasing income disparity. Instead, raise the income tax instead and use the new revenue to subsidize public transportation, alternative fuels and to step-up enforcement of other laws designed to reduce air pollution.

        • Lazy chart

          Other studies have said a gas tax is less regressive than you’d think because low income people tend to drive less & take more transit, bike, etc. And when they do drive they don’t use SUVs, minivans, etc. But this chart just assumes everyone drives exactly :

          Like other flat sales taxes, the gas tax is regressive. The reason for this is that if two people spend the same amount on gas, that amount is a larger share of the income of a lower income person than of a higher income person.

  5. Opinion vs. Facts

    Charlie: Lets keep opinions separate from the facts. VMT is not a “tracker plan”. That sloppy sound bite distracts people from the discussion we need to have. VMT does not track or retain origin and destination data – it only logs miles traveled on specific roads – anyone can google the results of the significant pilot program implemented in Oregon – VMT didn’t “track” anyone’s origins and destinations. I don’t mind having a debate about VMT but I do mind debating it on a false premise. Lets stick to the facts please.

    Also I want to get your income tax idea straight: if I take commuter rail, I get a fare increase (in 2012) and an income tax increase (in 2013). If I drive my car the same route I just get the income tax increase. I think that is how your idea works. Do your readers/bloggers view that as transit friendly, or progressive thinking?

    Jim Aloisi

  6. Talking transportation improvement

    For over a decade, I have harped on the need for transportation improvements. Not just reform over revenue or increased funding, but a comprehensive, sustainable plan for transportation over the next 5-25 years across the Commonwealth. While I agree with many points in the threads above, I must stress that there has to be a new formula that guarantees regional equity.

    The state’s transportation infrastructure is about as universal a public good as it gets; it’s a necessity for everyone, and everyone benefits from its improvement. The income tax is a perfectly proper place to go for those funds.

    Respectfully Charley, it is only “universal” if the funding is regionally equitable. The central/western transportation issues are very different than metro Boston. The decades of infrastructure starvation to feed the “Big Pig” will require a serious and concerted long-term strategy. There is literally a lot of ground to “make up.”

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Thu 30 Mar 8:38 PM