The Real Consensus on Transportation Doesn’t Involve the Gas Tax; With the MBTA Still Unable to Spend All it’s Given, Better Tools Beckon
By Christopher Anderson, Special to Banker & Tradesman, December 8, 2019
A 50 percent gas tax increase could soon exacerbate the challenge of commuting to and from work in one of the most robust economies of the nation. But will this create any meaningful solutions to address the commonwealth’s congestion and climate change challenges? We don’t think so.
Throughout 2019, the Massachusetts High Technology Council participated in a series of formal and informal discussions with an array of stakeholders on the nature of our transportation challenges and opportunities. Much attention has focused on the differing views among those diverse stakeholders and within the business community itself.
Yet, these discussions have had exactly the effect sought by most participants: Drawing attention to the most relevant and compelling data; demanding a clear-eyed assessment of how Massachusetts chooses to innovate in delivering transportation solutions; and surfacing a robust set of shared priorities and objectives that can be advanced now with immediate impact and without damaging Massachusetts’ thriving private sector economy.
The High Tech Council’s agenda is to support and strengthen conditions for investment and job growth in the commonwealth. We support a set of policy choices that would unquestionably move us toward a 21st century transportation system, without making Massachusetts a more costly place to live, work and operate a business. Additional transportation revenue from statewide tolling or gas tax increases won’t decongest the roads today or anytime soon.
A Better Way to Invest
With more than 350,000 jobs added in Massachusetts since 2010, the state’s private sector is a source of enormous opportunity for Massachusetts families. The very economic growth that is generating record state tax collections year after year is also contributing to our traffic congestion challenges, which we must address with investment, innovation and impact.
When it comes to innovation, Massachusetts transportation agencies are too often denied the same innovative project delivery and operational tools their peers in other states routinely use to optimize public investment in transportation infrastructure.
States across the country are embracing public-private partnerships (P3s) to harness innovation, expand project delivery capacity and make the construction, financing and operation of public transportation infrastructure more efficient. Massachusetts residents recognize the potential impact of P3s, with 73 percent supporting the concept in a recent MassINC poll. Massachusetts’ policymakers instead choose to maintain laws that impose on our transportation agencies illogical restrictions benefiting a small few and forcing the commonwealth to manage transportation projects in ways no private entity would.
Boston Landing, the transit-oriented project master planned by New Balance’s development arm, created a new neighborhood within Allston, connected to the rest of metro-Boston via a gleaming new rail station financed, constructed and operated with private funding.
Boston Landing could not happen in the same way today. Why? A public contracting challenge brought by the Carpenters Union resulted in a 2018 ruling by Attorney General Healey that state law requires private developers to manage such projects under the commonwealth’s closed-shop bidding process. The result: Higher costs and complexity for the developer and less value for taxpayers and system users.
To MBTA riders seeking a more reliable commute and better user experience, it must seem absurd that an organization representing the interests of just a few thousand carpenters, can impede the privately funded construction of a garage made primarily of concrete and steel and jeopardize more than $200 million in lease revenues for the MBTA. Even more absurd: Until we change state laws, that decision will block potential public private partnership and investment for decades.
No Consensus on Gas Tax
Leaders of our robust private sector are aware that exceptionally low unemployment and historic capital investments are creating record tax receipts for the commonwealth. Revenues are up 58 percent – three times the rate of inflation – over the past decade, resulting in billion-dollar budget surpluses in each of the past two years. Nonetheless, too many advocates see our intensifying congestion issues as an opportunity to advocate for new taxes and tolls on commuters with few options, without demanding sufficient changes to the status quo. That there is neither a consensus among business leaders nor sufficient grassroots support for the multi-billion dollar revenue packages being proposed by some advocates is abundantly clear.
The good news: We can continue to invest in our transportation systems without new taxes, tolls or fees. Transportation agencies have made clear their biggest challenge isn’t the lack of available resources, but the ability to get the resources they do have “out the door” in the form of actual projects and without new procurement and project delivery tools, they are unlikely to translate any new revenues into near-term congestion solutions.
By optimizing the investment of available resources and embracing systemic innovations, we can have meaningful impact on congestion. Conversely, we must avoid the lost opportunities that result from misplaced focus and effort– for example, imposing up to $2.6 billion in new fees on TNC rides which make up just 2 percent of traffic in Greater Boston.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s Transportation Bond Bill filed in July and pending in the legislature presents a broadly-supported opportunity for immediate impact by funding $18 billion in transportation investments over the next five years and advancing long-overdue policy changes that provide Massachusetts transportation agencies with the project delivery and procurement tools they need to succeed.
Whether we realize it or not, we have developed a real and important consensus on transportation. In the new year, let’s come together to advance it.