Massachusetts Can’t Wait Any Longer for RBIs
The Gateway Cities Journal
There’s a universal lesson from the Gateway City economic development experience that we should all take to heart at this incredibly challenging moment: You can’t respond to the swift winds of economic change with two hands tied behind your back. If we want to emerge from the pandemic with strong, equitable, and sustainable growth, communities must be in a position to raise revenue locally and regionally to meet compelling needs. The Legislature can give them this prerogative by keeping regional ballot initiative (RBI) provisions in the transportation bond bill currently before a conference committee.
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that continue to prevent local and regional efforts to generate revenue to respond to transportation needs. Research from the Brookings Institution suggests this form of preemption undermines long-term economic competitiveness. If we pass up on the opportunity to empower communities to act without further delay, this will only become more problematic for Massachusetts.
Over the past two decades, the federal government has significantly reduced spending on transportation infrastructure and channeled its limited resources toward projects with significant local matches. If a large federal infrastructure bill emerges to provide much needed stimulus, as most observers expect will happen sooner or later, our inability to generate local matching dollars could put regions in Massachusetts at a major disadvantage when competing for competitive funds.
Increasing fiscal stress for municipal governments is even more concerning. Without question, a sharp and prolonged downturn will hammer local budgets for a considerable period of time. This will leave communities without the ability to raise resources to meet clear and compelling needs, which is as strong a recipe for stagnation and decline as one could concoct.
At a 2017 statehouse forum, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll made the case for RBIs plain and simple. “There’s just a whole lot of good that can come from having resources to meet our transportation needs,” she implored, “And [RBIs] would unlock some of that, in places that want it.”
At another statehouse forum in 2018, we heard firsthand from local leaders in Georgia about how RBIs were allowing their communities to grow and develop sustainably. Diplomatically hiding his frustration after these success stories, the late Tim Brennan, the long-time Executive Director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Council, gave a passionate account of his advocacy for RBIs in Massachusetts going all the way back to 1987.
Cincinnati offers the latest demonstration of what it means to empower communities to act with RBIs. In May, voters went to the polls amidst the pandemic to approve a 50 percent increase in funding for the region’s bus system. The funding will lead to a generational increase in mobility and improve the lives of frontline workers who have put themselves in harm’s way.
The conference committee’s negotiators (Representatives William Straus, Mark Cusack, and Norman Orrall, and Senators Joe Boncore, Michael Rodrigues, and Dean Tran) can offer Massachusetts voters this same opportunity to act on behalf of their communities. They couldn’t find a more timely or fitting way to honor Tim Brennan’s legacy of service.