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.

Gilded Age

There was a harpist busking on the T the other day. On Beacon Hill, a main broke and water poured down the hill into the gutters at the bottom, swirling around the oversize wheels of a late-model Bentley coupe. Down the street there’s a billboard advertising a company that does medical debt collections. In a grassy spot next to the hospital, a gaggle of frequent emergency room customers bicker and slur and nod out. There’s a Mercedes S class with the license plate EXACTA idling in front of the coffee shop, near a store selling a ten-thousand-dollar custom chest of drawers and the convenience store where the mentally disabled guy shakes a cup of change. The guy who usually panhandles in front of the Dunkin Donuts disappeared for a while, then reappeared with crutches. He doesn’t look so good these days. It’s going to be a cold winter.

I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know if it’s worse than it used to be. But something isn’t right here.

The most horrible thing you’ll read all day/week/month

Worse than that Rolling Stone article about how Michele Bachmann’s congressional district has basically exacerbated bullying and touched off an epidemic of suicide among its teens is this piece in N+1 about violence, particularly sexual violence, in the the largest prison system in the world:

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
….
In January, prodded in part by outrage over a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, the Justice Department finally released an estimate of the prevalence of sexual abuse in penitentiaries. The reliance on filed complaints appeared to understate the problem. For 2008, for example, the government had previously tallied 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse. After asking around, and performing some calculations, the Justice Department came up with a new number: 216,000. That’s 216,000 victims, not instances. These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year. The Justice Department now seems to be saying that prison rape accounted for the majority of all rapes committed in the US in 2008, likely making the United States the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women.

Just got back from NOLA, already planning my next trip

I saw this band play at this exact bar just this Monday. Since it was Martin Luther King day, they opened by getting everyone to sing “We Shall Overcome.” And it was absolutely amazing. The whole show. Better, I think, than this video really conveys. Definitely more crowded.

He’s coming to Johnny D’s in Somerville in just a couple weeks. I plan to be there.

Oh Nelly

It’s common for dog-owners to note that they know other people’s dogs, but don’t remember the people themselves, just as parents often find themselves known as “Benjamin’s parents” rather than as … was it Melanie? It starts with an M, I think. With that cute low-maintenance bobbed haircut. And her husband, the one with the hat. Benjamin’s parents. You know.

Anyway, no, I don’t know the names of the people who walk the white-haired fluffball named Ziggy that I see almost every morning. He’s got a soul patch and a scally cap, and she’s got blonde curls, and they’re in their 40s. Ziggy’s about a year old, and a great dog, and the people are nice too. They recognize me with or without Lucy, but I doubt they remember my name. I don’t remember theirs. It’s nice to see them anyway. The same with Lottie, the French bulldog that stays within five feet of her owner, on-leash or not. I have no idea what her name is, although I’ve been introduced often enough that it would be embarrassing to ask again.

My favorite dog, though, the one that sticks with me, is Nelly. She’s 15 years old, and you can tell that she used to be mostly brown but is now mostly grey. I couldn’t tell you her breed, but she’s a little smaller than a Labrador, with oversized feet that look transplanted from a mastiff. With her is a guy I think of as Dave, who told me once that he still sometimes thinks she’ll grow into those feet. He looks like he could be anywhere from 50 to 70. He walks slowly, because Nelly walks slowly. She’s quite literally on her last legs: When she stops walking, they start to buckle and she sags toward the ground. If she sits, the man who might be named Dave has to lift her back up to her feet before they can turn around and walk back home. I’m always glad to see the two of them.

A Brief Trip To Free-Market Paradise of State-Owned Enterprises

On the way back from a wedding in Deerfield, the lady and I decided we’d swing by New Hampshire and check out the prices at the libertarian liquor store. Of course, we realized only after several miles of deserted, potholed highway that the store in Winchester NH was closed on Sundays. We tried to see if other stores might be open, but there was no cell service! No 3G, no Edge, nothing!

(Now that I’m back in-network, I’ve learned that some of the other locations are indeed open Sundays. Just not the one we dropped by. Poor planning, that.)

On the bumpy ride back toward Athol, I got to thinking. People here in the nanny state to the south love to complain about socialism. But in tax-free New Hampshire, home of limited government, it’s the state that decides when liquor stores are open. Not through zoning or neighborhood input to set regulations, the way we do it here. The state liquor board picks where the stores are, when to open them, what goods are sold, and how to price them. If socialism is state ownership of businesses, New Hampshire is the most socialistic state we’ve got up here. Sure, the Mass lotto is state-run, but tickets are sold in a variety of places, which can compete on convenience and amenities if not on price. Only in New Hampshire does the state actually own and operate such a major business that is, elsewhere, left entirely to private enterprise.

What’s this world coming to?

What you get for… $250,000

The NYT has chosen $250,000 as the price point for the latest in its “What you get for…” series, and the properties include a house in Maine and a condo in Dallas. And just after reading that article, I got an email promoting a similarly priced house in Cambridge, MA. This one is definitely a keeper:

Location!!! Location !!! Location!!! Big Single Family damaged by fire in need of Repairs and debris removal to regain its style. Located One Block from Inman Square and Minutes from Union Square Somerville, Central Square Cambridge, Harvard Square Cambridge and very Short Walking Distance from Cambridge Hospital. .. Only Cash Buyers or Rehab Loan.. need Flash Lights for showings- SOLD AS IS!!! SOLD AS IS!!!GREAT DEAL/ GREAT LOCATION

A friend of mine lives near the place, and says she’s been inside it – apparently it wasn’t well secured after the fire – and that it’s a “piss-scented vermin-filled disaster” that needs a wrecking ball more than a rehab. But who knows, “maybe some buyer will be really drawn in by the squatter graffitti.”

Talk about a great deal! A quarter-mil for a teardown!