If given a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw up the ideal transportation system in the Commonwealth, no one would produce anything resembling what we have today. The system is broken and before we ask taxpayers for any new revenue to support that system, we must repair it. Taxpayers and tollpayers across the Commonwealth have little reason or evidence to trust that their hard-earned, scarce dollars are being spent in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Reform must come before any discussion of new revenues for maintenance of roads, bridges, RTAs and other transportation modes.
There are many straightforward reforms which, if enacted, would save the taxpayer and tollpayer millions, if not billions, and build public trust about how their resources are being spent. Currently, three agencies – Mass Highway, the Turnpike Authority, and the Department of Conservation & Recreation – are charged with operating and maintaining roads and bridges. Under a Senate proposal, these functions would be consolidated under one agency, resulting in significant savings and efficiencies. Regional Transit Authorities, such as the BRTA in the Berkshires, are funded on a lag schedule, where state appropriations pay for the prior year’s costs, plus interest. Instead of investing in new routes and expanded service, the state is paying to borrow money it knows it will spend. RTAs should be forward funded. If this is too costly for an already ailing state budget, RTAs that are not also served by the MBTA (the “T”) should be given priority for forward funding. Additionally, employees within the transportation system, in particular those at the T, should earn the same benefits as other state and municipal employees. The idea that anyone, in any field, could retire at 43 years old, with 100% state funded health care, no matter if they choose an HMO or PPO, is outdated and unaffordable.
These are some, and by no means all, of the transportation reforms that should be considered, debated, and acted on, before any discussion of revenues moves forward. That being said, there will be a time when revenues must be debated. Recently, the Administration leaked a proposal for a 27.5 cent raise in the gas tax. Such a raise is unacceptable, especially if the revenue raised is used to simply pay down debt from the Big Dig and the T. No doubt, there is a shared responsibility and obligation to pay for the operation and maintenance of our roads and bridges. However, asking taxpayers and tollpayers that rarely, if ever, use or see benefits from such projects or agencies to bare a relatively large share of a burden is not the answer. Instead, we should look at a mix of revenue options that shares the responsibility of paying for the system proportionally among those who use it and benefit from it.
An effective, efficient and responsive transportation system is vital to the economy of Massachusetts. Real reform won’t happen if the old broken system is given a new injection of revenue. Old habits will persist and costs will be passed on to future generations. By putting reform before revenue, we can ensure that future generations won’t end up where we are today – at a dead end. By putting reform before revenue we can build a better transportation system and that’s the way to build a bridge to a better tomorrow.