Key lawmaker sees $2 billion transportation funding gap

Courtesy: Massachusetts Office of Travel

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 4, 2015…..A year and a half after raising taxes to address public transportation repair and expansion needs, a House Democrat who helped steer the financing bill to passage says a $2 billion long-term funding gap exists.

Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who helmed the House side of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee last session, said voters’ decision last November to repeal a law indexing future gas tax increases to inflation created a deficit by removing a projected $2 billion in transportation revenues over the next ten years.

After an appearance with House Speaker Robert DeLeo outside DeLeo’s office, Straus said he would look to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, appointed this month by Gov. Charlie Baker, when determining how to proceed.

“As a result of the ballot question, there is a gap that exists at least in so far as the next 10 years of transportation expenditures,” Straus said. “Whether that gets addressed or not is something that the Legislature working with the administration will have to take up.”

>>> For video of DeLeo’s press conference with Straus, go to: <<&lt;

Saying voters did not appear to back his tax plan, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in 2013 dismissed Gov. Deval Patrick’s push for more substantial new revenues to pay for transportation and education system improvements. Lawmakers instead passing a pared down tax hike package that they said would address financing shortcomings in transportation.

In addition to the financing law piece repealed by voters, Patrick and the Legislature in 2013 quickly changed their minds about another major piece of that law, opting to repeal a computer services tax after an uproar over that levy.

The subtractions from the tax package leave in place tax increases on tobacco and a 3-cent per gallon gas tax increase.

“But the result of the legislation was substantial and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars a year in added transportation money is being spent as a result of the gas tax increase, which did go into effect at 3 cents a gallon,” Straus said.

“I view myself as something of a zealous advocate on this, so I always think we could use more,” he added. “I don’t want to say that’s everybody’s view. But I view my role in committee as being the strongest possible advocate for full funding for transportation.”

Asked if he expects a re-opening of the debate over transportation financing on Beacon Hill, Straus said, “There has never been a year when there isn’t a transportation financing question. Sometimes it’s more in the public eye than others. But we deal with transportation financing every year.”

On Tuesday, Baker unveiled a proposal to solve a $768 million gap in the fiscal 2015 budget that included a $40 million transportation cut.

Baker, who backed the November repeal of indexing the gas tax, said state government should “live within its means” as Bay State families and small businesses must. Separately in a statement, he called the recent delays and difficult commutes experienced by public transit riders “unacceptable.”

According to a Baker administration spokesman, the governor’s budget fix proposal cuts the MBTA by $14 million. Of that, $5.3 million comes from a hiring freeze and $3.3 million from administrative cuts. The rest — $5.4 million — is taken from unanticipated MBTA revenues that came through a 1.5 percent ridership increase.

The MBTA has a $1.9 billion budget in fiscal year 2015.

On Wednesday, while Straus acknowledged the 2013 transportation financing law as “imperfect,” DeLeo defended the Legislature’s record on the T, noting efforts to send additional state funding to the transit authority and reforms implemented to help save money. Lawmakers pushed through a 2009 transportation reform law to extract savings out of the system and funnel it back towards the transportation system.

“All of those types of things were issues that we addressed and attacked in order that we could provide more funding for the T. And it was our hope that those would be a giant step forward in doing just that,” DeLeo told reporters.

DeLeo said people who had difficult winter commutes were rightfully frustrated.

“There were a whole host of folks I think – and rightfully so – who were very aggravated in terms of their inability to get from one place to another,” said the Winthrop Democrat.

DeLeo said he had taken the MBTA on Tuesday and it “worked very well… for me.”

“If you’re looking for an upside over the difficult commutes that people have endured, perhaps that will be it, which is that added focus is given on how critical transportation systems are for day-to-day travel and the economy in this state,” Straus told reporters. “In my view, we just have to have among the world’s best transportation systems if we are to be the region we want to be.”

The speaker said whenever he rolls out a transportation package he “consistently” hears from people in other parts of the state seeking attention, and he said voters had the last word on linking gas-tax increases to inflation when they repealed that law on the November ballot.

“The voters I think answered that question fairly resoundingly this past year, so obviously that money will not be available, but that was also part of our plan,” DeLeo said.

“We had an idea and the voters didn’t think it was the best idea,” Straus added.

The 2013 law aided areas around the state, Straus argued.

“Under this speaker two years ago, for the first time in decades, we increased the capital investment in the other public transit authorities around the state so that during this same weather that you’ve seen all around the commonwealth, they have benefited from added buses, added facilities, added maintenance budgets, so that public transit not just for the T but everywhere in the state has improved because of the financial commitment that the Legislature has made,” he said.


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