Sides Staked Out for "Adult Conversation" About Transportation Funding

By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 11, 2012�� Even if the state chose not to fund the $1.3 billion Green Line Extension, several of the revenue-generating ideas tied to that project in newly released documents will need to be used to keep state transit authorities afloat, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told the News Service.

Those ideas include a new cent-per-mile tax on vehicles, casino revenue allocated to the MBTA and tying the gas tax to inflation.

“I’ve not heard any credible source whatsoever saying we’re spending too much on transportation or enough on transportation,” Davey said “So I think the conversation is beginning, and the first step is to admit you have a problem.”

However, to Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, the problem is the state’s goal of expanding the Green Line through Somerville and into Medford when the whole system is heading toward another deficit next year.

“Why wouldn’t we consider postponing it or avoiding it until the folks who run the MBTA say they can restore it to solvency without extraordinary measures like tax increases,” Tarr told the News Service. He said Davey should make clear distinctions between “what is required versus what is desired.”

The Federal Transit Administration requires the MBTA to have a strong financial footing to receive New Starts funding, which would make up 42 percent of the Green Line project’s cost. Davey said he hopes federal funding will eventually make up half the $1.3 billion project.

Earlier this year, the MBTA engaged in a wrenching public process of 31 sometimes boisterous and confrontational public meetings before raising fares to cover most of a roughly $160 million deficit. Fare hikes averaging 23 percent will take effect on July 1.

The MBTA still faces an immediate budget gap and lawmakers are poised to advance a bill providing some funding to regional transit authorities while delivering the bulk of $51 million in surplus vehicle inspection fees to the T.

The House plans to take up a T bailout bill Wednesday; the Senate will take up the proposal soon after, Senate Transportation Chairman Thomas McGee told the News Service. If the $51 million plan does not go through, the MBTA will recommend bridging the budget gap with service cuts not additional fare hikes, according to Davey.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has postponed long-term fixes for the MBTA until the start of the next legislative session, in January 2013. Meanwhile Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration has pushed the need for an “adult conversation” about transit funding though Patrick dismissed the revenue-generating ideas alluded to in a recent Federal Transit Administration letter as “hypotheticals.”

“You got to wait for my plan. We’re thinking through what our options are,” Patrick told reporters. “We want a fix not just for this project, not just for the T but for all of transportation and one that’s good for 20 years or more and we’re going to have a very engaged and serious debate in this building and beyond about how to do that.”

Even without a firm plan in place, the conversation has begun for some, who like Tarr, oppose the idea of new taxes to fund the transit authority.

Hours after the News Service reported on the FTA letter outlining transportation funding options, Restaurant and Business Alliance President Dave Andelman – founder of The Phantom Gourmet – released a statement opposed to the $.01 per-mile statewide tax, saying, “Discouraging people from moving around the state will stop the economy from moving too.”

Tarr suggested “revisiting employee compensation,” seeking out sponsorships and improving fare collection as routes to put the MBTA on solid financial footing. He also said that given overall state transportation funding problems “it really strains credibility” to consider extending the Green Line to Medford, though he is “sympathetic” to the fact that Somerville was promised the new transit line as environmental mitigation for the Big Dig.

Tarr said he thought his colleagues would feel similarly nonplussed, but Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville) is looking forward to her colleagues’ efforts toward finding funding for a backlog of repair needs at the MBTA, as well as regional transit authorities, roads and bridges.

“If I were not an optimist I could not do the job that I do,” said Provost, who has filed legislation to raise the gas tax the past two legislative sessions and said the MBTA needs alternative sources of revenue to stay afloat.

“Even if there was not an application for federal funding for the Green Line Extension, which I think will bring money and jobs into the Commonwealth, it would still be necessary to bring our transportation system into a state of good repair,” Provost said.

Both proponents and opponents of the Green Line Extension agree that the state does not currently have the money to afford the project.

“We cannot pay for the current system that we have today and we certainly can’t pay for expanding service going forward,” said Davey, though he said the state would follow a court order to complete the project. “By law we have to do it, so it’s going to go forward,” Davey said.

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