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.