How Can We Fix Mass. Transit System?

By Bob Seay

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August 3, 2011

BOSTON—The massive borrowing in support of Massachusetts’ transportation infrastructure has reached nearly unmanageable levels and we must find a way to pay it down or the problems with stalled locomotives, broken subway cars and crumbling bridges will only get worse.
 
Yesterday Richard Dimino President and CEO of A Better City outlined the scope of the fiscal problems facing the MBTA and other Massachusetts transit infrastructure. Today he talks about his ideas on how to fix them.
 
Two years ago, Massachusetts contemplated raising the gas tax to rescue the ailing Turnpike Authority but instead helped pay their bills using a portion of the increased state sales tax. Now that debts are mounting for other state transportation organizations a raise in the gas tax is being discussed again.
 
And as painful as it is to contemplate, Dimino says the benefits of a gas tax are easy to see across the Atlantic. Though Europeans are pay much more for gas, Dimino says they have a higher quality infrastructure and are currently expanding their transportation systems.
 
Although Lt. Gov Timothy Murray suggested two weeks ago that a gas tax hike is on the horizon, Dimino thinks the public would strongly oppose the move and doesn’t predict any increase in the near future.
 
Dimino suggests that sourcing funds to pay our transportation debts more broadly could be more palatable than one larger, more visible tax hike. Slightly increasing a variety of existing taxes like those on motor vehicles, payroll and parking combined with fees based on the number of miles one drives, emissions, development impact fees and a local option sales tax could all help to pay off the transportation system debts. It all sounds painful but Dimino says such an approach would avoid relying solely on the gas tax to solve the problem.
 
“If you find lots of little places where people can chip in, it adds up to a lot of money and you start hammering away at the five hundred million dollar deficit at the MBTA, maybe you start chipping away at the huge debt service our transportation system has, maybe we can find a way to plan expansion––dare I say the next set of improvements in our transportation system.”
 
And then there is a bigger player that Dimino says has yet to be tapped.
 
“Could we look at the airport as being a stronger financial partner with our transit system I think the answer to that is yes. We can look at that either through parking receipts—another option is pay a local assessment –should there be some kind of structured assessment on the port relative to the transit services it gets everyday”
 
In fact, MASSPORT already has a working group looking at the issue: At their meeting on July 21st Interim Massport CEO David Mackey said he supported efforts to explore how Massport might contribute more to the transit system, but cautioned that
any action taken cannot jeopardize Massport’s ability to fund the operating and capital costs of the seaport including the Conley terminal, or its financing relationship with the FAA which is its primary source of funding, or its mission to provide “operation of its airport and seaport facilities in a safe, secure and world class manner.”
 
In other words, assessing the airport for additional money for transportation infrastructure is not going to be easy.
 
It seems there’s no easy way to get more money but most officials agree that without more revenue Massachusetts’ transportation funding crisis will worsen, and the system will deteriorate.
 
Dimino admits the biggest challenge is convincing a skeptical public that paying for transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvements will improve their quality of life.
 
“I think the public, once they understand that not investing in transportation affects their pocketbook in a different way and also puts them and their commute at risk and at the same time hurts our economy–– they hopefully will rally with our legislators and our legislators will be willing to take risks and lead us to solving these problems.”
 
That may be wishful thinking on Dimino’s part but the financial threat to our transportation system won’t go away and at some point we’ll have to pay our way out of Debt Valley.

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