Ben Forman and Dr. Tracy Corley offer testimony to the Joint Committee on Revenue
On Regional Ballot Initiatives for Transportation
The Honorable Adam G. Hinds, Senate Chair
The Honorable Mark J. Cusack, House Chair
Members, Joint Committee on Revenue
State House, Rooms 109-E and 34
Boston, MA 02133
Dear Chair Hinds, Chair Cusack, and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for this opportunity to provide written testimony in support of An Act Relative to Regional Transportation Ballot Initiatives.
MassINC first identified regional ballot initiatives (RBI) as a model to generate revenue for the state’s multi-modal transportation network in a 2010 white paper, which synthesized takeaways from a National Transit Summit held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The attendees from across the US described how other states were successfully investing in their transportation systems using RBIs. They made it clear that Massachusetts risked falling behind if its regions did not have the ability to act similarly during a period of declining federal investment.[i]
The following year, MassINC produced a report providing a more detailed examination of regional ballot initiatives. The analysis demonstrated that RBIs held real potential for Greater Boston—where transit funding trailed significantly behind the growth of the economy over the least three decades—but the tool also offered an equally attractive solution for regional economies outside of Boston.[ii]
MBTA transit in metro Boston requires intensive investment that has not been forthcoming because the system is heavily reliant on statewide revenue. This statewide funding approach constrains our ability to generate political support for adequate transportation funding for Boston. With one pot of funds spread too thinly, it also results in significant underinvestment in transportation infrastructure in other parts of the state. Simply providing basic RTA service to communities in the Berkshires, the Pioneer Valley, Central Massachusetts, the Merrimack Valley, and along the South Coast has been a major challenge. By pitting projects that serve Boston’s transportation demands against projects that other parts of the state are counting on for future growth, the current funding model perpetuates geographically-unbalanced economic development.
With RBIs, each region of the state would be free to chart its own destiny, deciding what kind of system is needed to accomplish regional economic development objectives and generating revenue to support these investments with a mechanism that wins support from voters locally. Many fear such a model would lead to a patchwork of disconnected transportation systems, but changing economic trends suggest it would likely produce greater integration of regional economies over time.
Our 2018 report examining the potential of transit-oriented development in Gateway Cities outlines this more nuanced argument for RBIs. The report demonstrates that job growth is increasingly moving away from highway exit ramps to core urban areas with frequent transit service. Economists studying this trend in cities throughout the world believe the most competitive regions in the future will be those with large core cities surrounded by a constellation of satellite cities. This arrangement allows smaller economic centers to “borrow size,” increasing their competitiveness by tapping into the larger city’s skilled labor and global connections. At the same time, this relationship helps prevent productivity growth in the larger city from stalling as congestion and land cost rise.[iii]
Massachusetts is fortunate that its industrial legacy fostered a network of smaller cities connected to a large global center by rail. We can create 21st century linkages between these cities by substantially improving transit service in these rail corridors. RBI is an attractive avenue to achieve this outcome because it would allow communities along each rail line to determine the level of rail service required to create strong connectivity (as well as feeder bus and other mobility investments to leverage the trunk line) and invest accordingly.
In this regard, RBI is a much needed course correction. Since the passage of Proposition 2 ½, communities have been far too constrained in their ability to invest in their economic futures. Empowering communities with RBIs will also increase return on public investment by creating stronger incentives for communities to work together to align land use decisions with public infrastructure and transit service.
A report published last year by the Brookings Institution noted this longstanding problem in the context of changing economic forces, concluding:
States must be willing to let cities, counties, and regional governments experiment with different taxation schemes. If constituents don’t like a local tax regime, they’ll vote with their feet by leaving the region or demanding changes. But states should not preempt localities to even compete for new revenues and the resultant improvements to local transportation infrastructure. States could help build more long-term economic competitiveness by allowing their localities to either increase or authorize access to general-option taxes.[iv]
We thank members of the committee for their consideration of this legislation and encourage you to reach out to MassINC if we can assist as you deliberate on this important matter.
Ben Forman & Dr. Tracy Corley
MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute
[i] See: Benjamin Forman and others. “Next Stop, Massachusetts Strategies to Build the Bay State’s Transportation Future and Keep our Economy Moving.” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2010).
[ii] See: Benjamin Forman and others. “Moving Forward with Funding: New Strategies to Support Transportation and Balanced Regional Economic Growth.” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2011).[iii] See: Dan Hodge and others. “The Promise and Potential of Transformative Transit-Oriented Development in Gateway Cities.” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2018).
[iv] Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane. “Localities will Deliver the Next Wave of Transportation Investment: Federal and State Policymakers Can Do More to Support Local Efforts” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2018).