As Reported by Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Debate is heating up over a proposed 29-cent hike in the state's gasoline tax — an attempt to raise revenue to pay off the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's $8 billion debt and the $2.3 billion owed on the Big Dig.
The proposed gas-tax increase was a response by some legislators to a call from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority for a range of toll increases along the Mass Turnpike and the Big Dig, up to $7 per car in some locations.
The 29-cents per gallon hike would result in a total of 50 cents per gallon in state taxes on gasoline in Massachusetts.
Many Berkshire County legislators say they are unhappy with the proposal and contend that it would put an undue burden on the Western Massachusetts populace, who have little access to mass transit and are more dependent on their cars and trucks for their income.
Closer to home, North Adams Mayor John Barrett III said he is dead against any increase in the gas tax unless the revenue raised in Western Massachusetts remains here to pay for roads and bridges.
"We're gonna pay for the Big Dig, after we went without projects for years because all the federal money in Massachusetts was going into the Big Dig? Now they want to share their pain with us? Well, they can share their own pain, because that's crazy," Barrett said. "They want us to pay again and it's ridiculous."
He said the state should be instituting tolls on the western end of the turnpike, where use between Springfield and Lee is currently free.
"If I use it, I should pay for it — that's how we've had to run our cities and towns for a long time," Barrett said. "I don't want to pay for someone else's mistakes. There's got to be a better way."
Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto said any increase in the gas tax should be part of a combination that includes higher tolls along the turnpike and Big Dig, otherwise it would be an unfair burden on rural areas of the state.
"I think a combination of both is the best approach," he said, "because I think users who are getting a disproportionate amount of government investment into the highway system in and around metropolitan Boston should be expected to accept increases."
At the Statehouse, Western Massachusetts legislators are trying to deflect the proposed gas-tax increase by finding other ways to cut spending.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said new revenue streams should be identified only after comprehensive reform — and possible consolidation — of the state's various transportation agencies has been considered.
A proposal to merge the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, MassHighway and the Department of Conservation and Recreation's roadway management and maintenance arm into one entity is expected to be filed later this week, Downing. The new entity would be called "Mass Trans," or Massachusetts Transportation.
"These are fiefdoms that have built up over time and, in being allowed to continue to exist, they've cost the taxpayers money in the form of duplication of services," Downing said.
"We in the Senate don't think it's responsible or appropriate to talk about revenues until we have established that the transportation system we have in the commonwealth is the most effective and efficient possible."
Downing argued that consolidation would result in fewer personnel getting more done for less money, more efficiency in planning and executing projects, and less spending on equipment and supplies. Once that has been achieved, then "the most equitable" sources of revenue could be identified to close the transportation funding gap.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is a member of a new House task force that is studying the state's transportation issues.
"Right now I am adamantly opposed to any increase in the gas tax whatsoever," he said. "I don't think we can tax ourselves out of this problem. And unless we get our fair share of it in the Berkshires, I will not vote for one."
The debts incurred by the Big Dig and the MBTA should be fully investigated before substantial revenue sources can be identified, Pignatelli said.
"Until we get to the root of the problems of what caused this financial mess to begin with, I think a tax is the wrong message to send at this point," he said.
Gov. Deval L. Patrick maintains that any talk of gas-tax hikes or increased tolls must be part of a discussion on comprehensive, multi-year transportation reform, according to administration spokeswoman Rebecca Deusser.
The newly appointed transportation secretary, James A. Aloisi Jr., is in the process of hammering out a reform package that is likely to be unveiled this month, said spokesman Clark Jessen.
A local environmentalist, who noted that, while taxes will increase the price of gas and therefore reduce its demand, it is also a regressive tax, likely to hurt lower-income families who can't afford the additional burden.
"In principal, I ... feel that a very good way of controlling greenhouse gases is to make the emissions more expensive by increasing the price of carbon-based fuel," said Tom Stokes, coordinator of the Climate Crisis Coalition based in Lee. "However, we have to recognize that this puts working people at a disadvantage because they pay a relatively higher amount of their household income toward fuel."