STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 9, 2014…..The next governor will need to eliminate popular transportation projects from the state’s to-do list if a gas tax indexing repeal proposal passes in November because it will strike $2 billion in long-term funding, the state transportation secretary testified Thursday.
Passage of the proposal would also mean more traffic and potholes, Rich Davey, the transportation secretary, told lawmakers at a hearing.
“I think the challenge we have sometimes in politics is that there are those who would like the public to believe that they can have it all and they don’t have to pay for it,” Davey said after testifying in front of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. “And there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Backers of the ballot question, known as Question 1, say automatic gas tax increases mean legislators won’t have to be recorded on such votes. Many Republicans are behind the proposal and they have argued state government is too resistant to embracing efficiencies and reforms to cut unnecessary costs.
Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican and a top backer of the ballot question, said consumers have already seen increases in registry fees. “There won’t be much left in the household budget but the need for a free lunch if the secretary of transportation gets his way,” Diehl said.
The Legislature can also pass borrowing bills for projects, Diehl added, noting that lawmakers recently passed a $1 billion bond for expanding the Boston Convention Center, which is “losing money.”
Davey said the state’s transportation infrastructure faces a “daunting” maintenance backlog, and the ballot question would “jeopardize” the progress already made by targeting a new source of funding included in a 2013 law that also raised the gas tax by 3 cents and boosted tobacco taxes.
“I can’t tell you how to vote but I can tell you what your vote means,” Davey told the chairs of the Transportation Committee. Elected officials and business leaders have been telling him they want more transit service, not less, he added.
“It’s not politics, it is just math,” Davey said while flanked by MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott and Steve Townsend, president and CEO of Keolis America, which is operating the MBTA’s commuter rail system.
The three officials testified as part of a legislative oversight hearing on the transition from the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co. to Keolis, which started as the new operator on July 1.
After the hearing, which drew about a third of the committee’s members, Davey pointed to the Longfellow Bridge, which connects Boston and Cambridge and includes MBTA tracks, as an example of transportation infrastructure that requires an investment.
Davey toured the bridge, which is being repaired, several weeks ago and noted “significant corrosion” underneath it. “I mean, these are not nice-to-haves, these are absolute needs,” he said. “And so, we need to stop misleading the public to think that we can under the current funding structures, at least in transportation, address all the challenges that we have and make the investments and service improvements that they want.”
Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said he had seen suggestions in the media that revenue from the gas tax can be diverted “to all kinds of things elsewhere” and asked Davey to clarify.
Davey said state officials are prohibited from such diversions. “Transportation revenues pay for transportation services, period,” he said.
Straus then pivoted to the debt the state is still attempting to pay off from the Big Dig highway tunnel project. He said that decades ago the financing method of the Big Dig was “less obvious” to the public by the Republican administration at the time.
Without explicitly naming the administration, Straus asked Davey how much longer the state will be paying off the debt “engineered” by that administration.
Based on the latest figures he’s seen, the timeline stretches into the 2030s, Davey said.
A veteran of the Weld and Cellucci administrations in the 1990s, this year’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Charlie Baker has seen a reprisal of efforts by Democrats to tag him with the flawed financing of the Big Dig. Democrats first raised the issue in Baker’s 2010 gubernatorial run against Gov. Deval Patrick, referring to him as “Big Dig Baker” and helping Patrick to go on to win a second term.
Former Gov. William Weld, currently a principal at ML Strategies, recently called criticism of Baker’s involvement in Big Dig financing efforts “ridiculous.”
“Everything he did was positive,” Weld, who tapped Baker as health and human services chief and later as administration and finance secretary, told the News Service.