Gas tax indexing opponents raise safety concerns

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SOMERVILLE, MASS., SEPT. 23, 2014…..Casting future increases in the gas tax as a public safety matter and economic development driver, a coalition of business, political, transportation and environmental officials gathered Tuesday on a patch of grass overlooking an old trestle bridge and launched their effort to defeat a November ballot question.

Question 1 would repeal a portion of a 2013 law that linked future increases in the gas tax to the rising cost of living expenses, starting next year. The Legislature passed the 2013 tax package, which originally included a tax on software services in addition to gas and tobacco taxes, to raise money for unmet transportation system needs.

“We’re here to formally launch our campaign against Question 1 and the grave public safety threat it poses to everyone in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. He said, “We cannot be playing Russian roulette with our citizens’ safety hoping that our roads and our bridges can get fixed someday. Today as we speak there is a clear and present danger we are faced with.”

Gas-tax indexing opponents this year mounted a grass roots campaign to place their repeal question on the ballot and have argued that if lawmakers want to raise taxes, they should be required to vote each time they wish to do so.

A September poll by MassINC for WBUR found 39 percent in favor of repeal and 45 percent opposed.

Led by Steve Aylward, a Watertown Republican, the ballot question effort touted an all-volunteer effort behind its goal of repealing the “automatic” gas-tax increases that the group said would remove accountability from elected lawmakers.

“Our opponents need to apologize to the voters for trying to scare voters. They have mismanaged our money!” said Aylward in a statement.

Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican and major proponent of the repeal effort, noted that the state has in place a $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program to fix structurally deficient bridges, and Gov. Deval Patrick held back $100 million in local road funding the Legislature had authorized, saying the 2013 tax bill provided insufficient revenues.

“This is them trying to scare the public into not realizing there’s already a program in place,” Diehl told the News Service.

With the financial backing of industry powerhouses such as the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Suffolk Construction and the Massachusetts Aggregate and Asphalt Pavement Association, the Committee for Safer Roads and Bridges, which opposes the repeal, has amassed about $783,000 in its campaign chest, according to its latest filing.

The Committee to Tank the Automatic Gas Tax Hikes, which in stark contrast to its opponents receives the majority of its donations from individuals, has a much more meager campaign kitty of about $6,000, according to its latest filing.

“There will be resources that have and will come from the business community,” Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President Paul Guzzi told the News Service, about the effort to defeat Question 1. Guzzi said the lawmakers he has talked to still support the law, and the campaign will include television ads and social media.

Calling funders of the vote-no side “nothing more than a bunch of state vendors,” Aylward told the News Service, “We’re always going to have enough to keep fighting.”

“We are doing what we can with the limited resources that a citizens petition has,” Diehl said, saying, “It’s no surprise that the people that make money off the Department of Transportation” are funding the other side.

Massachusetts voters repealed a sales tax on alcohol in 2010, while rejecting a move to reduce the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent.

“I think people are willing to pay for public infrastructure improvements if they have confidence they will be done efficiently and cost-effectively,” said Massachusetts Competitive Partnership CEO Dan O’Connell, who said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has demonstrated competency in that area following the Big Dig, which he said created “readily apparent benefits,” but suffered from a “lack of oversight.”

Tank the Gas Tax also noted a recent Reason Foundation report that found Massachusetts spends an average of $675,000 per state-controlled mile in 2012, which is well above the $162,202 weighted average. The report also noted Massachusetts and a few other states “manage significantly wider roads, averaging more than 3.0 lanes per mile.”

James Aloisi, the former transportation secretary who served in Gov. Deval Patrick’s Cabinet, recently criticized the 2013 tax law’s inclusion of a software services tax to fund transportation, writing in Commonwealth Magazine, “If ever there was an example of the folly of extracting transportation revenue from non-transportation sources, it was the late unlamented tech tax.”

Aloisi suggested “smart” public-private partnerships, user fees for roads bolstered by technology equipped to measure vehicle miles traveled and to charge premiums for driving through congestion, and a “carbon assessment” for non-residential parking facilities as methods to fund transportation.

“I think all alternatives should be considered, but this is what we have,” said Guzzi, referring to the gas tax.

After a public outcry, the Legislature quickly repealed its new tax on certain software services. A repeal of the gas tax indexing on the ballot would be a further blow to the total revenue stream originally forecast to bring in about $500 million annually, which also included a 3-cent hike in the gas tax and a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax.

Mary MaGuire, of AAA Southern New England, said safety is the organization’s “top priority” and said there are an “alarming number of our bridges” in Massachusetts that are “in sub-standard shape.”

Curtatone said the state’s top 10 structurally deficient bridges carry “more than a million cars each day,” and said deficient roadways are a contributing factor in one-third of traffic fatalities.

The effort to block the repeal has enlisted the public relations firm Rasky Baerlein, which has assembled an executive committee to oversee the campaign. Mark Horan, a senior vice president at Rasky, said the group uses data from the Federal Highway Administration on road safety, and used analysis from the Patrick administration to estimate a $1 billion deficit over a decade if the law is repealed.

“We’re all responsible,” said Curtatone when asked if lawmakers are culpable for the transportation system he deemed dangerous. He said, “This is not about casting blame. This is about taking action.”

The Tank the Automatic Gas Tax Hikes group has said lawmakers should have to cast votes rather than rely on an administrative function to increase the gas tax.

“If the majority party wants to continue to tax and spend in this fashion, they should have the courage to vote for the tax increases annually,” Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, said in a statement printed on the website of the group backing passage of Question 1.

Lawmakers passed the tax law, which included the automatic increases, after years of discussion over rising transportation costs and potential strategies to come up with new revenues for the system.

“They already made a statement. It isn’t easy for them. They made a statement and the vast majority are standing by this vote-no,” said Guzzi, who said people are open to alternatives.

Environmental League of Massachusetts President George Bachrach questioned whether those opposed to indexing the gas tax also oppose “indexing of Social Security.”

The press conference announcing the official launch of the campaign was held along the McGrath Highway in Somerville in front of the Gilman Street Bridge, which is being rebuilt and is along the route of the future Green Line Extension bringing trolley service through Somerville and out to Medford.

Transportation officials have said federal funding for the Green Line Extension wouldn’t be available without the new tax revenues from 2013, and have also credited the tax law with funding an extension of the Silver Line dedicated-bus-route into Chelsea.

The Patrick administration has prioritized repairing structurally deficient bridges, through the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program.

Curtatone said the transportation needs are present throughout Massachusetts, not just in the congested area of Metro Boston, where buses and trains are often an alternative.

“The public safety threat is faced by every community, whether you’re in Weston, Worcester or Wareham,” Curtatone said.

Eric Lesser, a Democratic candidate for state Senate from Longmeadow who was endorsed by the Environmental League of Massachusetts Action Fund, has said he will vote for Question 1, saying in a debate, “We drive more than the people in the Boston area, and we do not have adequate transportation options.”

“We didn’t have a litmus test,” Bachrach told the News Service when asked about the difference of opinion. He also said, “We’ll bring him around.”

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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