The Senate Transportation Plan

The Senate passed its own version of the transportation package after a ten hour session on Saturday.  The vote was 30 to 5 in favor with 3 Republicans and only two anti-tax Democrats opposed.

Many of us had hoped for a broader package, along the lines proposed by the Governor in January — addressing not only transportation funding, but also education funding and tax reform.  Through the preceding week, Senators had many passionate conversations about the coming vote.

It became clear through those conversations that the votes were not available for a broader package.  Many senators felt that their districts would not support increased taxes.  Equally problematic, there was a lack of consensus on specific education and tax reform proposals.

By contrast, advocates have spent years building the relatively clear consensus about the need for particular transportation investments.  Many of us, including me, were pleased with the much broader package that the Governor filed, but, as the final vote approached in the Senate we recognized that we had to focus on transportation alone.

The transportation package that the Senate passed is consistent with the House package that I wrote about last week in two fundamental respects.  First, it raises a little over $500 million in taxes with a 3 cent per gallon gas tax increase, a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase and certain business tax increases.  Second, it makes $240 million of that new revenue available for non-transportation purposes in the coming fiscal year,  FY14.  Since it adheres to that framework it should be largely acceptable to the House.

At the same time, transportation advocates like me supported the package because it provides more revenue for transportation.  The new elements in the package as it came out of Senate Ways and Means included:

  • Rededication to transportation of $80 million  per year from an existing 2.5 cent per gallon gas charge.  (Currently, taxes on gasoline included the basic 21 cent tax plus 2.5 cents earmarked for clean up of underground storage tank leaks.)
  • A directive to the MassDOT, the state’s transportation department to start charging utility companies for easements that have previously been granted for free.  This item could raise up to $250 million per year, but we only counted it as a $40 million item given uncertainty and expected delays in implementation.

Combined with the previously agreed tax increases and projected own source revenues (fees, tolls, fares, savings) these items bring the total raised by the package to approximately $800 in FY2018 — a level which many advocates had defined as important.

On the floor, we added three additional long-term revenue enhancements:

  • Two amendments (Amendments #87 and #99) directing MassDOT to move towards open road tolling on major routes other than the Turnpike.  Toll expansion raises a number of legal and political complexities, and we didn’t make specific assumptions as to revenue that these tolls could raise.  But in the long run, this move represents a sound approach to financing road maintenance.
  • A commitment (Amendment #75) to transfer up to approximately $160 million per year from the general fund to the transportation fund in years  beyond Fiscal 2018.  This transfer roughly equals the amount raised in the current tax package but not dedicated to transportation ($240 million less the existing $80 million storage tank fee that the Senate plan rededicates).  The transfer is necessary to support the rise in debt service as capital spending continues through MassDOT’s 10 year capital plan.
  • A directive (Amendment #30) to the MBTA to pursue naming rights sales on its stations and other assets.  I opposed this measure — many of my constituents feel strongly about preserving historic station names —  but it passed on a 20-12 roll call vote and may raise an additional $20 million per year.

I personally feel that the transportation improvement plan would be sounder if it had some firm additional tax revenue supporting it.  I supported three amendments that would increase gas taxes by up to an additional 6 cents per gallon.  The least ambitious of these (Amendment #81) failed on a roll call vote by a 10-23 margin and we let the other two go without a roll call.

A couple of floor amendments (Amendment #75(b) and #107) addressed the issue of MBTA fare increases.  #107, adopted on a voice vote,  limits increases to no more than 5 percent every two years.  This limit, although highly desirable from a rider perspective, may conflict with the goal of increasing maintenance spending.

The plan now heads to a House-Senate conference committee.  I am hopeful that opinions have converged enough now that the committee should be able to swiftly produce a final bill that can maintain both House and Senate support and which the Governor is pleased to sign.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

7 replies on “The Senate Transportation Plan”

  1. Thank you for this report, Will. It’s a lot more thorough than today’s Globe story (

    It would be good to have a summing up of all it includes, including the total gas tax now with details about escalating it, and how much that is expected to raise v. needs.

    But probably you need to sleep first. Have a good vacation week, if you’re going away.

    Sue Bass

  2. Will,

    Thanks for helping to make the Senate version better than the House version. I appreciate your hard work on it.

    It is good that the legislation will prevent MBTA fare increases or service cuts this July, especially considering the large fare increase last July.

    I share your concern that the Senate version is still not good enough to meet needs, especially in the short term and then again in the out years. I am wondering whether you think the Senate version includes enough revenue to allow the T to get to a state of good repair and to purchase new Red, Orange, and Green Line trains. As you know, all the Red and Orange Line trains, and many of the Green Line trains, are beyond their useful life. Many of the delays on and unreliability of the T can be traced to equipment that needs to be replaced and maintenance that has been deferred due to lack of resources.

    Also, I am curious whether Amendment 75 will require a legislation in or after FY18 to enact the transfers or whether this bill can require the transfers.


  3. Why can’t Massachusetts be a leader when it comes to transportation, rebuilding infrastructure, and standing up to fossil fuels? The gas tax hasn’t been raised in decades and as cars are more fuel efficient the tax collected per mile driven is plummeting. A 50 cent a gallon increased gas tax would raise over a billion dollars yearly, promote fuel efficiency, and fund public transportation as well as highways and infrastructure repair.

  4. Thanks for the work you put in on this, it’s good to see some progress. Curious about some of the text. Near the beginning around line 17 there’s a paragraph about some kind of performance monitoring benchmarks that seeks to achieve “10% reduction in commuting times” over 5 year rolling periods. That seems like a tall order; although the “adjustment for economic activity” maybe straightens that out.

    I see that the gasoline tax is indexed to the CPI annually now, unlike the previous version which had it occur only once, in 2015.

    Some of the amendments are intriguing, if I’m reading this correctly. #2 could be useful. The T is very cagey about fare evasion numbers. Sometimes they say it is high, sometimes they say it is low, depending on the audience. It would be nice, for example, if the commission could demonstrate that the T is taking an overly extreme and customer-unfriendly approach towards combating fare evasion. It would also be nice if they could review modern fare collection strategies like Proof-of-Payment which would enable all-door boarding and lots of operational cost savings. These are used on most newer systems here and abroad.

    In Amendment 87 it suggests putting up tolls on the interstate highways where they enter the Commonwealth. I was under the impression that the FHWA won’t allow this?

    The Underground Storage tank fee is indexed to inflation by amendment 102.

    And of course, the fare hike cap of amendment 107 seems like it would keep fare increases approximately even with expected inflation.

  5. I agree. But the politics are this: In districts further away from the urban core, people drive a lot more and are therefore more affected by gas tax increases. Exurban and rural legislators are strongly opposed to gas tax increases.

  6. Yes, funding the T state of good repair is my top legislative priority.

    I do think that Senate version can fund state of good repair, but it depends on how the next step goes — the Transportation Bond Bill won’t come until later in the year and that is where funding gets allocated to major project categories.

    Amendment 75 requires no further legislative action — it is self-executing.

  7. Thanks, Matthew — yes, tolling the interstates would require federal permission. Many are guessing that permission will be forthcoming to help states deal with the limited federal funding expected in the years come.

    I agree that the performance goals are also aggressive — always good to set aggressive goals, but I agree they may be stretch goals.

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