Opinion Analysis | Exploring how Massachusetts can raise revenue and fund investments
Recapping the Get Smart Forum in Cambridge
On June 13, 2019, leaders from business, transportation, and policy gathered in Cambridge for the Get Smart Forum to discuss how Massachusetts can raise revenue and fund investments in transportation. According to the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation, our Gateway Cities rely on “Robust public and other transportation modes that connect burgeoning and existing job hubs to housing and each other helps address concerns of economic equity for both people and places.” Currently, long delays, a failing network, and an inefficient system plague the transportation network’s users. Previous policies of reform before revenue have led to these conditions and the same mindset cannot create new solutions. Our goal is to explore how to link revenue with reform and create holistic solutions that address the needs of all riders in Gateway Cities and across the Commonwealth.
Andrew Bagley of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation kicked off the event with a presentation on how Massachusetts can fund transportation breaking down the difference between operational budgets and capital budgets constraints progress for both the MBTA and RTAs. Next up, Lizzi Weyant of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council explored the premise that people will support revenue generation for transportation’s ability to increase economic development by proposing options to raise revenue which can make our Gateway Cities regional centers. She also identified two pools of money; Big Money that can come from the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), congestion pricing and tax reform along with down payments that can happen locally like value capture and regional ballot initiatives (RBIs) which allow for local control of locally raised funds, especially for transportation improvements. Though system failures at the T have garnered attention, communities without T access also struggle without frequent, reliable bus, shuttle, and other basic transit services. Regional Ballot Initiatives will allow for the Gateway cities to become the hubs the Governor’s Future of Transportation Report calls for.
Chris Dempsey from Transportation for Massachusetts and Kathryn Carlson from A Better City discussed congestion pricing and innovative tolling with the goal of decoupling growth and congestion. Currently, users pay directly for public goods like water and electricity by usage, however, roadways (which are also public goods) are not paid for this way. Congestion pricing re-imagines roadways as a public service that should have a cost tied to it, especially during peak hours. While these raised questions of inequality, the current reality where congestion, created by high-income single drivers, traps low-income public transit commuters and additionally burdens them with pollution will not create more equity. This decoupling suggests ramifications throughout the state but especially in the Gateway Cities, that aim to grow with transit rather than highways.
According to Abbie R. Goodman of American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, the 2013 gas tax has not kept up with inflation. As one of the early supporters of the 2013 increase in Massachusetts repealing of indexing has meant the current tax hasn’t raised enough to cover road maintenance. Additionally, as we look towards the future and changing fuel sources, the reliability of this as a source for funding has decreased. Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) provides an opportunity to reduce this uncertainty. Sonia Hamel of Hamel Environmental Consulting explained this regional initiative- similar to RGGI, that will create a market-based cost of CO2 emissions paid for by fuel wholesalers. 12 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states have participated in conversations to implement these ideas for a more sustainable transportation system. This funding can fund projects like Rail Vision – a key to connecting the Gateway Cities through more reliable bi-directional commuter rail service.
The inequalities outlined regarding congestion pricing extend far beyond the scope of transportation in Massachusetts, has one of the highest rates of income inequality. Marie-Frances Rivera from MassBudget proposed pairing transportation investment with tax reform to address both inequities. Finally, Ben Downing, former State Senator, discussed his lessons learned. He suggested that we avoid small revenue-generating taxes since they only create conflict without much revenue generation. As a representative for Western Massachusetts, he also emphasized the value of regional efforts (like RBIs) and prioritization of other regions through regional ballot initiatives.The Governor’s Commission calls for a commitment to “providing sufficient resources for the proper maintenance, operation, and upgrades to the state’s transportation network”. While it is true that the lack of specifics makes achieving this goal difficult, each of these revenue streams has the potential to generate funds that could improve the transportation systems in Gateway Cities. In my opinion, many of these solutions, like smart tolling, gas tax, and TCI offer multiple benefits beyond funds. Users are likely to change modes to more sustainable options such as transit, biking, carpooling, or walking which can be enhanced by the funds generated from these programs leading to even greater mode shift. Improvements that take into account the needs of the users, equitable access, environmental concerns, and economic development will require more funding and a suite of these policy solutions will allow for their development while supporting these goals, thereby allowing revenue and reform to occur in tandem. These solutions will certainly foster the right environment to create sustainable transportation equity in our Gateway Cities and across the Commonwealth.