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Editorial: Fix is fuzzy in Gov. Patrick’s plan for transportation

Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to boost spending on the state’s transportation system is a plan only a lame-duck governor would consider, let alone advocate. This assessment comes not only because of the price tag, but because of the governor’s failure to address mismanagement and inefficiencies in the current transportation system.

In recent weeks the governor has made headlines by rolling out an ambitious agenda in his State of the State address and proposed budget. He has outlined plans to expand education, transportation, school construction and other public infrastructure.

In an editorial Jan. 21, we reviewed the governor’s plans to revamp the public housing system by ending local governance. He sees it as a way to root out corruption and save money. The goals are good, but the approach is questionable. The editorial noted that a counterproposal by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials deserves a careful look.

The governor’s overall vision for the future is an expensive one. He would increase state tax revenue by $1.9 billion by raising the state income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent, all the while reducing the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 4.5 percent. The meals tax would also drop to 4.5 percent.

Revenue from the income tax hike would be earmarked for education initiatives; all sales tax revenue from this budget forward would be earmarked for transportation, school construction and other public infrastructure projects. The state now commits 20 percent of sales tax revenue to public transit, most of it going to the MBTA, the mass transit system in Greater Boston.

Patrick embraces the Massachusetts DOT’s 21st Century Transportation Plan, which calls for generating $1 billion a year for the next decade for road and bridge repair and mass transit upgrades. This is not just maintenance — although there is plenty in need of repair. The plan also calls for an upgrade of mass transit in Greater Boston, an expansion of rail service to Springfield and financial help for the 15 regional transit authorities, including the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

Planners in our region estimate that the Valley’s transportation systems need more than $1.3 billion for highway work, bridges, public transit and bike and pedestrian routes. Good systems for moving people are critical to our economy and our society and they need a steady stream of revenue for planning purposes.

Money for the governor’s transportation plan would come from a slow but steady increase in the gas tax, turnpike tolls, Registry of Motor Vehicles fees and MBTA fares. Patrick and the DOT argue that this combination of tax and fee increases are needed because the state transportation system is in the hole, underfunded and still burdened by debt from the Big Dig highway project. No surprise there: Warnings flags were flying early into the Big Dig that overruns from mismanagement would sap spending on future transportation needs for decades.

What is not addressed in the DOT plan is the mismanagement and waste in the current system. The MBTA is a notorious money pit. As we have noted in the past, the MBTA gets 57 percent of its budget from the state; the regional transit authorities get one-third of their budgets from the state. The MBTA has seen a 16 percent increase in state support over the past three years, while other regional transit authorities have seen a 5 percent decrease.

The T is managed by a cumbersome bureaucracy. There is a history of political interference from Beacon Hill, patronage and incompetent management of major contracts costing taxpayers millions, along with entrenched labor unions that have successfully resisted efforts to change practices or privatize parts of the system to save money. As for highways, the Reason Foundation, a libertarian research group, notes that Massachusetts is 44th in the nation in state highway performance and cost effectiveness, which means we’re not getting the most from our transportation dollars. This needs to be addressed before we start spending more.

At a time when the economy is struggling, when the cost of goods and services are rising, take-home income is stagnant and federal payroll taxes have increased, the Patrick budget plan will put the middle class deeper into the hole.

The governor says his plan will make the tax system more equitable, and that a family of four earning $60,000 would only pay an additional $91 a year. But that’s on top of rising local taxes, a rising gas tax, increased fees for public services, special assessments for water and sewer upgrades and so on. It also ignores a bit of history taxpayers will remember. In 2000 voters approved a ballot initiative to lower the income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 5 percent. In 2002 the Legislature locked the rate at 5.3 percent, but allowed it to fall in increments of .05 percent depending on state revenue growth. It dropped once.

Gov. Patrick is not running for re-election to a third term, so there is no political capital at risk for him. As the Legislature takes up the budget, its members will have to own it.

This means a spending plan that includes cost savings along with new revenues without overburdening the middle class. It will be a tricky balancing act, but that’s what’s needed.

Legacy Comments1

Combining the Turnpike and Dot was supposed to save us money. When prvious Governors tore down toll booths and sold turnpike assets it was to save money. When tolls were cut ot was to save us money. Why when the Big Dig was built why weren't tolls used to pay off the debt.Mismanagement is a poor word. Incompetence is a better term. Get the house in order, do a much better job.

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