MBTA Funding Thoughts from Rep Dave Rogers

I wrote to my state government officials this past week to complain about the way our transit system has been shortchanged for decades, and how it’s now failing spectacularly when even slightly challenged.

Some of them responded, but Dave Rogers took the cake with the following incredibly exhaustive explanation of why Beacon Hill hasn’t come through for the T yet. It’s upsetting to hear, because the answer is still basically “money is tight, have patience” but he’s certainly paying attention:

Aaron – As you may have noticed, the biggest debate that the state legislature had in the last legislative session (2013/2014), was a debate over transportation finance. It was protracted. It was heavily covered all over the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. It was again, clearly the single biggest issue the Legislature took up in the last legislative session.

Gov. Deval Patrick proposed a bold plan that called for raising $1.9 billion in revenue in part by raising the income tax, actually lowering the sales tax significantly, and closing or modifying 44 different credits, deductions and exemptions in the Massachusetts state tax code. The money raised was to be spent on two major investments: transportation and education.

His proposal fell flat in the Legislature, with many members skittish about a big tax increase. While my relatively more progressive/liberal constituency would likely support a tax increase as long as they knew it was targeted to meaningful investments in our future, many legislators represent districts where a tax vote would all but guarantee them a very serious political challenge and indeed could cost them their seat in the Legislature.

And, putting aside politics, in addition many of the same legislators actually didn’t think a big tax increase was a good idea because we ought to be looking for savings and efficiencies in the budget before we go to the taxpayers for more money. Also, they observed that Governor Patrick waited until he did not have to face the voters again before proposing his tax increase. Opponents also noted that within the 44 different credits, deductions and exemptions that Governor Patrick proposed to eliminate or modify, several were very popular with the public and it would be deeply unpopular and perhaps ill-advised to eliminate them. I will not go through the whole laundry list of 44 different items, but just to give one example, the Governor proposed eliminating the exemption from taxation of the capital gain on the sale of a home. Because ownership of a home is often the single biggest way that many middle class people try to build financial security, many taxpayers take advantage of this exemption and removing it would have been controversial.

Governor Patrick countered that he was open to negotiations and was not overly wedded to one particular approach. He also noted that he didn’t want to propose the tax hike during the worst of the recession, not because he was waiting until he didn’t have to again run for election. He also strongly argued that these investments in public transportation (including but not limited to the MBTA) and education were vital to our future prosperity and quality of life and that taxpayers would get a good return on the investment.

It would be hard to describe how intense the debate was on Beacon Hill.

I sided with Gov. Patrick, believing that transportation and education are so vital to our future as a state and as a society, that no matter what political pain might come, it was the right thing to do for a whole variety of reasons. Unfortunately, Governor Patrick’s plan did not carry the day. So while we did raise revenue by increasing the gas tax and the cigarette tax, I do not think we actually raised enough.

However, the revenue we did raise will now be invested in the system. Obviously, it takes time to fund capital projects and get them implemented, so it will be a while until we see the improvements. For instance, the T has placed orders for new Redline and Orange line cars. I also believe that upgrades will be made to the electrical grid and the other parts of the system involving mechanical and electrical engineering, the parts that T riders never see but that are so vital to a smoothly functioning system.

I would also note that on the ballot this past November, one piece of our transportation finance package was before the voters. Specifically, part of the tax package we passed to finance the transportation system included indexing the gas tax to inflation. That way the purchasing power of the revenues generated by the gas tax will not erode over time. The voters chose to repeal the indexing of the gas tax, further diminishing a revenue package that I didn’t think was big enough in the first place. So you can see the concerns of those in the Legislature like me were not totally unfounded.

Of course, those of us in the Greater Boston area also need to bear in mind that in large parts of the state, they do not benefit from the T and they believe that investments in the Greater Boston area always overshadow investments in other parts of the state.

Making public policy is ALWAYS more complex than meets the eye. Sometimes the media puts out sound bites, but there’s always more detail that is involved.

I will continue to be a strong advocate always for public transportation. To me public transportation is vital to economic growth, quality-of-life and to keeping cars off the road which cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. It links workers to jobs and businesses to their consumers.

I don’t see major changes in the near-term but do believe the capital improvement projects I referenced earlier will begin to bear fruit over time.

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