The Senate makes bold investment in regional transit
The Gateway Cities Journal
Inadequate public transportation has long been a shared concern for Gateway City leaders across the state. Many of their residents are simply trapped on nights and weekends, when bus service is either extremely infrequent or entirely unavailable. This has serious implications for individual health and wellbeing. It also reduces the available workforce, and regional economic competitiveness. New revenue from Question 1 presents an opening to address this longstanding problem. With each iteration of the FY 2024 budget, we get a bit closer to achieving this goal.
Before we dig into these developments, some context will be helpful: In FY 2024, the legislature is working to spend $1 billion from Question 1. The ballot initiative is likely to generate significantly more revenue, but the exact amount is uncertain and the surtax tax on top earners will be volatile, so legislators want to be particularly careful with funding that organizations will rely on for recurring expenses. The ballot initiative directs all of this new revenue to either education or transportation, without specifying how much either should get.
The governor’s budget proposed $490 million in new transit investments with Question 1 revenue, including $25 million in funding for RTAs. This RTA allocation was only 5 percent of the total Question 1 transportation spend. Moreover, out of the $25 million, just $6 million went to operating support. The bulk of the money ($15 million) was earmarked for a discretionary innovation grant program. While expanded service was an eligible use of these grant funds, providing dependable recurring revenue is the most efficient way to help agencies operate more service.
The House budget prioritizes this kind of unrestricted support and provides far more of it. The Question 1 funding for RTAs includes $51 million for operating assistance, a 42 percent increase over current levels. In addition, the House kept the governor’s $15 million innovation grant program concept. Combined, the plan delivers $70 million to RTAs, 14 percent of its $500 million Question 1 transportation allocation.
Unveiled last Tuesday, the Senate Ways and Means budget upped the ante with $100 million for RTAs, 20 percent of its Question 1 transportation total. This $100 million allocation includes $56 million for operating support, and $25 million for the innovation grant. Equally important, the Senate plan offers $15 million for fare-free programs.
The Worcester RTAs (WRTA) performance demonstrates how much of a different this fare-free funding could make. According to the most recent data assembled by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, WRTA’s ridership now surpasses pre-pandemic levels by 50 percent. (Most peer agencies remain well below pre-pandemic passenger volumes.) WRTA has achieved this success by forgoing just $3 million in annual fare collections.
As legislators work to reconcile the House and Senate spending plans, they should take time to reflect on the items that have been long overlooked because they don’t have powerful interests fighting for them on Beacon Hill year after year. Viewed through this lens, the argument for doing more for RTAs is clear and compelling.
At the same time, we should take this moment to acknowledge that the Question 1 windfall doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do more to help these organizations enhance service. The Worcester Regional Research Bureau’s efforts to document the benefits of fare-free for the WRTA demonstrate the difference it makes when community partners work to understand the needs of RTAs and carefully document them. If the legislature chooses to send an additional $100 million to the RTAs next year, ensuring that these resources have maximum impact for riders will require an enormous collective effort._
The Gateway Cities Journal is a biweekly news publication from MassINC’s Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. To subscribe, click here.