A Trial Balloon

I want to float a trial balloon. Don’t take my head off, it’s just a thought: What if we were to give the MBTA the ability to raise its own tax revenues regionally subject to periodic voter approval (as in Proposition 2.5)?

Some background first: As compared to other major transit agencies in the United States, the MBTA gets a relatively large share of its revenues from the state, as opposed to regional/local sources (see page 11 of this study from MassINC). Transit services have regional benefits, so it makes sense to fund them regionally.

Arguably, the economic health of Massachusetts, perhaps New England as a whole, depends on the health of Greater Boston. Perhaps, but growth in many other regions of the state has lagged growth in Boston.

A majority of legislators live outside the core MBTA service area (see this study from MassINC at note 22). Rightly or wrongly, they tend to see the disparity in growth as an argument for more state investment in their own regions instead of in Greater Boston. Hence, the basic political difficulty of funding the MBTA operating deficit.

In 2000, the state ended its practice of covering the MBTA’s deficit at the end of the year. Under “forward funding”, the MBTA was placed on a steady funding diet and held accountable for managing its costs. The state pledged 20% of state sales tax revenues as permanent support for the MBTA.

The MBTA board was unable to live within the forward funding framework. Multiple factors contributed to the failure — notably, rising health care costs, wage increases awarded by arbitrators, rising energy costs and, on the revenue side, weak sales tax growth. Additionally, understandable political pressures to limit fare increases and to avoid cutting services contribute to the strain on the MBTA’s budget.

The MBTA’s debt burden was not one of the factors that unraveled the forward funding plan — debt costs remained within projections (see the D’Allesandro report at page 29) and the state’s contribution to the MBTA’s budget more than covers debt service. Nonetheless, debt is a relatively high portion of the MBTA’s budget as compared to other transit agency budgets (see page 16 of this study from the MBTA Advisory Board). Much of that debt was transferred from the state at the time of forward funding.

So, against that background, here is one idea that is in the mix as a long-term solve for the MBTA’s operating budget: (1) Transfer some of the MBTA’s debt back to the state, relieving the immediate financial pressure on the T. (2) Give the MBTA the power to levy a tax in its service area subject to voter approval.

Some have suggested a regional payroll tax, but that would probably run into constitutional problems. More likely, it would be an increment on sales or property taxes within the service area. The increment could start at zero and then the voters would have to approve the new taxes at the biennial election of 2014 and approve any increases at biennial elections thereafter.

This proposal doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how to address the long-term capital needs of the MBTA. One could devolve that challenge to the voters of the service area or, one could keep the state politically and financially involved for major investments.

Putting in place a two-year cycle would support long term planning. Making increases subject to voter approval in regional elections would improve both transparency and accountability.

I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

48 replies on “A Trial Balloon”

  1. I migrated to Boston from Austin where this approach is in effect. You can read the full story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_Metropolitan_Transportation_Authority
    It’s not pretty. The ability to tax has two unintended consequences. First, it removes all incentive to pay attention to economy and efficiency. Feather bedding is one very apparent cause of MBTA’s difficulties. Granting the ability to tax will let the MBTA continue to ignore this problem. Second, the ability to tax begets an unending stream of unneeded and unwanted transportation projects whose only real purpose is to drive up the tax take. Capital MetroRail in Austin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_MetroRail
    is cautionary tale and a case in point. Putting a tax base underneath the MBTA will only make both its financial and its operational problems worse. My view is that the trial balloon is made of lead.

  2. I’m afraid not, Will. As far as I can tell every tax is subject to voter approval one way or another and are living the result. Only a truly egregious situation will result in citizen action. It has happened to be sure but it’s rare.

    The way the government has found around voter resistance is to levy lots of little taxes rather than a few big ones. This is the strategy of overlay tax districts such as your MBTA proposal. Tax revenue by a thousand cuts, if you will. No one tax is sufficient to trigger a revolt.

    The MBTA’s #1 problem isn’t finance; it’s operations. I ride the Green Line a lot so I see the problem “up close and personal” as Howard Cosell used to say. As far as I can tell employees of the MBTA don’t even care they are running a very shoddy — not to say unsafe — service.

    I am willing to help a person to the exact degree to which they are willing to help themselves. Were I to see a sign that the MBTA was willing to address their operational problems then, and only then, would I be willing to address the financial problems. Without attention to the operational problems my view is that more money — whatever the source — will only make matters worse.

  3. Thanks, Will, for a characteristically lucid presentation of this intractable problem. Putting the T on a solid financial basis, both annual and capital, is a big priority for me. From the Governor’s proposal I thought the political strategy was to distribute transportation spending projects widely across the state, so that legislators outside the MBTA area had plenty to support. This seems sound to me, not just for political reasons, but because as I understand it those other regions have seriously underserved transportation needs. Making this sort of deal strikes me as the preferred solution.

    The regional MBTA tax idea doesn’t bother me in principle–this is a vital need, and users might well pay for it–but I fear that going to the taxpayers repeatedly for revenue will keep the T chronically undercapitalized. (Incidentally, I tend to disagree with your correspondent who sees this plan as an invitation to featherbedding–it’s easy to blame an indifferent T employee here or there, but the real problems are systemic and not all that visible to the impatient T user–and I’ve certainly been one.)

    What about a 3rd revenue idea: tax all the free-riding auto commuters from the north and south shores who roll in toll-free on 93? And if we’re half-way serious about climate change, why aren’t we looking even more to gas taxes (I know some rise has been proposed) and other auto user fees? The combination of pricing motorists into the T, while offering a modern, highly functional service, makes the most sense.

  4. Creative thinking as always! I don’t claim to understand this complicated issue but: what if the taxpayers DON”T approve the tax? Tax is a dirty word to many and relying on approval by the payers is a gamble, especially those who don’t use the T in spite of being in a served community. I agree with the proposal re gas taxes and to tax/toll 93 north and south to try to get people off the highways, however if there is no transit service that is equivalent for these people, that would be a problem. I do not know if there is or not….just connecting north and south station has been impossible so connecting north and south shore might be the same! The increase in auto traffic is remarkable in the 38 years we’ve lived here. Concord Avenue, Brighton, Clifton are all stop and go traffic at rush hour and most cars contain only the driver. I wish I had a solution and appreciate your concern and efforts!

  5. Isn’t this similar to the existing assessment mechanism? (which has remained fairly flat for the past 12+ years). How municipalities choose to fund the assessment is up to them.

    And speaking of which, why regional funding for transit only, while continuing to fund road expansion out of the general fund? I think good arguments can be made for regional and for non-regional. But should we be considering moving to a regional (or non-regional) funding mechanism for all modes of transportation?

    Legislators from non-MBTA districts like to complain about funding for the T. But at the same time, they receive a combined total of hundreds of millions of dollars in road subsidies. For whatever reason, they are allowed to pretend as if those subsidies didn’t exist, while making a big stink about the needs of Boston.

    For example, the formula for distribution of Ch 90 funding is heavily weighted towards existing centerline miles. That tilts the funding balance in favor of places with lots of roads, even if those roads are not used much.

    If road funding were also done regionally then they would have to pay for their own roads (and RTAs), instead of leaning on the economic engine of Boston, and perhaps would spend more judiciously.

    On the other hand, we are a Commonwealth, and we should work together. This would argue against regional funding mechanisms and in favor of dispersing general funds in accordance with population and need. Again, there would be regional differences: some would choose to disperse their share on roads more than transit, other areas like Boston would put a higher percentage towards transit.

    Speaking of Austin, I recently visited and rode Cap MetroRail. It’s a barebones, barely usable system that doesn’t go where people want to go; it goes where the largely single track, freight right-of-way existed. There might be a cautionary tale here: the alternative transit corridor that is still desperately needed was narrowly defeated in a referendum because of opposition from suburban districts despite strong city support. This probably goes to show that even at the regional level the different interests are too much at odds. On the other hand, Los Angeles has done pretty well with its 30-10 program using referendums.

  6. I think its great having this discussion. I’ve attended several MBTA meetings and often left with more questions. The state moved debt onto the MBTA with the expectation of higher revenue to the state which the MBTA would receive a potion to cover the debt that was moved off of the State books. Now you are suggesting that part of that debt be transferred back to the state.

    “The MBTA’s debt burden was not one of the factors that unraveled the forward funding plan — debt costs remained within projections and the state’s contribution to the MBTA’s budget more than covers debt service. Nonetheless, debt is a relatively high portion of the MBTA’s budget as compared to other transit agency budgets. Much of that debt was transferred from the state at the time of forward funding.”

    When I ride the #1 Bus up or down Mass Ave I get on a bus thats late and crowded on top of that I’m paying more to cover a debt that’s not mine. The state should transfer all of the debt back to the state.

    Next, property tax has nothing to do with transportation. You guys should man up and determine a tax amount that can fund the MBTA. Such as taxing drivers from NH and Conn many of whom work in the Greater Boston area. Increase the amount of gas taxes sold at the pump. Also allow the MBTA to issue permits to small shuttle services. Example if I want to go to the beach on the South Shore instead of renting a z-car I could take commuter rail get off and go to and return from the beach by a shuttle using my MBTA Charlie Card. The shuttle would operate under a MBTA permit. MBTA permit fees for special services would increase ridership this would be a cash cow. If permit program was created, the MBTA be helping to create jobs across the state, and it would help get more people out of their cars because they would have service that benefit them.

    Finally, why can’t MBTA employees as well as all state employees be a part of Mass Health? This would save the MBTA and the State money.

    Thank you.

  7. Senator, first a compliment. In my nearly 40 years of working between the private and public sector I haven’t met too many elected officials willing to float trial balloons, let alone ask people for their reactions. Well done.

    MBTA debt was always a state responsibility until the Weld administration. They needed headroom for the Big Dig, so they pushed it back to the T. Yes operating systems are lousy, trains and rails in need of maintenance, yet the fares are not comparable to the DC Metro, probably the best publicly operated system. A reasonable fare system, with the entire state paying the capital costs, is better than a local property tax. Municipal budgets aren’t any better than the T’s, so pushing it down to localities doesn’t really address the issue.

  8. I agree with sguthery’s comments. We should learn from the debacle in Austin. I also think we need to do much more to reform operations of the MBTA. We still have people retiring in their 40’s and 50’s and receiving very large salaries for semi skilled work. I understand this policy has been changed for new hires, but it needs to end period. The contracts should be overturned as they are a product of decades of unfair agreements which were rigged against the taxpayer from the beginning. There has also been massive mismanagement which goes unchecked. We need an oversight body of the MBTA that is not politically connected that can dismantle the organization and reorganize it from top to bottom.

    Also, some of the expansion plans need to be curtailed or stopped altogether.

  9. Will, thanks for a great forum and great comments here.

    Its clear the current funding model needs work. City and town MBTA assessments and Ch. 90 distribution formulas are overly simplistic and inaccurate, much like the vehicle excise tax formula.

    Take Cambridge for example. Zoning policies force more workers to use the MBTA without increasing their assessment to the MBTA, nor decreasing their Chapter 90 distribution. At the least, much of their Ch. 90 distribution parts for residents and employees needs to be diverted to the MBTA since they more heavily use the MBTA and less heavily use roads than average communities. I suggest the population part of Ch. 90 assessment be replaced by registered vehicles and trailers (to recognize extra road wear), and the workers part by parking spots.

    Quincy is another stark example where benefits are much greater than what is paid via MBTA assessments. These funds, however come from the property owners in communities, not the people riding the MBTA, and thus still less fair.

    An employer will pay property taxes on land used for employee parking. If they cut back on their costs by reducing parking, they save money while workers burden the MBTA with the MBTA having no way to access any money the employer saved by not offering parking. So, if anything, employers and retailers should be charged by the MBTA for not supplying parking.

    We can blame the court system and lefty lawyer groups for heaping debt on the MBTA with the Green Line Extension, south east rail extension, and inner loop as some sort of bargain for the sin of providing added roadway transportation in the big dig. Instead of promoting public transit, these lawyers added strain to it.

    As to the MBTA gaining efficiency, how about a compensation method like that in the private sector where performance and efficiency are rewarded. A food server or sales person usually has a salary with a tip or bonus plan. Other workers take part in profit sharing. Imagine if T workers and management had incentives!

    As to voting on the MBTA being able to tax, this is still a problem in a one-party state.

  10. Regarding the trial balloon, here’s my suggestion: calculate the cost to build, maintain, and repair roads by community. 351 of ’em. Then, calculate the amount spent by the Commonwealth [state gov’t] on that, again by community. Just for yuks, go ahead and calculate the state tax revenue from each of the 351 communities.

    My bet is that you’ll find that those legislators who live outside of the core MBTA service area are getting many more roadway dollars per resident (and per tax dollar paid by their constituents!) than the communities within the core MBTA service area. I don’t know if this is true or not; it is just a hunch.

    If it is true, then the fair way forward is to treat roads and rails the same: the Commonwealth gives each community $X/person [or some other formula] which is divied up between roads and rails. Of course, we ought to also consider number of employees on payroll within each community to reflect not just where people live but where they work.

    My point is simply this: Central and Western Mass have no problem with my tax dollars going to build their roads, and, per person, they’ve got a whole lot more roads. Yet when it comes to their tax dollars paying for my mass transit, suddenly they’ve got a problem.

    By allowing the MBTA to have a regional tax, you’re exacerbating that phenomenon unless you also require a regional tax in less populous areas to fund the additional tax dollars per person that they spend on roadways.

    I’d add that every time the MBTA provides a paratransit service, every time they shelter victims of a burnt down apartment building in a few buses, every time they provide a discounted fare to a senior, a student, or a blind citizen, that they’re providing service *above and beyond* mass transit, and that some other government [state or local] ought to give them a transfer payment for the service. I like all of those things that the MBTA does for the community, and I think that the MBTA should continue doing them… but I also think that the government agency which gains the benefit of that MBTA gesture should pay for that gesture.

  11. I understand that there needs to be a way to deal with the problem and that more revenue will be needed.

    That said, I shudder to think of yet another addition to the property tax. Property taxes are already high enough so that people are having a hard time paying the. Some towns are reducing needed services now. I don’t think more reductions are a great idea.

    In addition, I should like to know more about how you propose this be administered. Is the T to levy the tax on each town or municipality? Will this be outside of the jurisdiction of these units?

    Adding to the sales tax has its own problems. The sales tax is a regressive tax and it hurts those who have least the most. Many of them are T users and will be impacted by higher fares.

  12. I have not read everything here, but I note that the highways are substantially subsidized by the Federal Government. Since the MBTA is a MUCH more efficient use of resources than cars are it should be subsidized MORE than cars are, if only to reduce carbon emissions. The proposal here is a good idea, but how about this: charge a “congestion” charge on cars coming into the city like they do in London and use the money to fund the MBTA? Personally, I would be in favor of REDUCING the fairs on the MBTA to increase ridership (preferably to zero!), which I consider only fair since people should be compensated for giving up some of the convenience of automobiles.

  13. People who live in NH or RI and work in Boston already pay a tax to use the roads. Its the MA income tax levied on their MA earnings. Perhaps this needs to go to the MassDOT for roads and MBTA instead of the general fund!

    As to a congestion tax, NYC and Boston have toll booths, though Boston lacks them on inbound I-93 North and South, as major routes. Any reduced traffic volume resulting in less pollution could then be used to fight the court decision forcing the Green Line Extension project and unsustainable debt on the MBTA!

  14. Those who only use public transportation have been neglected long enough. Any driver who commutes into the MBTA area must pay a tax to support public transportation. They are using our roads and highways and parking in our streets not to mention poluting our air. They must be taxed heavily to support the MBTA then perhaps they will use it and cease freeloadingg in our towns.

  15. I like that you float trial balloons and share them with the citizens of the Commonwealth. The thoughts from all these people are thoughtful. We really live in quite an intelligent state.

    I live out of the immediate area of the MBTA but I drive into areas where I can pick up the T. Getting the MBTA on solid ground is a solution but how do we get there is the problem. Voting for a tax means a campaign and money spent to either support or defeat the proposition. For me, mounting a battle is a waste of money. How many times have we seen Prop 2 1/2 overrides bring out warring factions in communities? I have always hated that law but we are stuck with it. Let’s not inflict a vote on the T.

    Though I don’t right now have the formula, I trust there is an answer out there by experts. How do other cities run their transportation systems? There are so many cities to study either here in the United States or Europe to study .

  16. By this logic why should any taxes I pay in Greater Boston go to support services in some other part of the State? Getting so local on how revenue for shared state services are raised and spent puts us on the consumer model of government — just pay for what you use. Following that to its logical conclusion is not a pretty picture, and I don’t see the underpinnings of this argument in the MBTA situation to be any better. Are we too self-centered to see that the investments we make in a COMMONwealth benefit us all? Are our elected officials too afraid to step out and do what is right, even if politically it means a lot explaining and convincing?

    We need to invest in regional transportation investments AND in the Greater Boston system as well. People can distrust govt and complain about one-party rule and hacks all they want — eventually a bridge is going to collapse, brakes will fail or an employer will decide to relocate to a state where they actually invest in the infrastructure necessary to do business and attract employees. We need to be conservative about maintaining and investing in our transportation infrastructure and progressive about doing it in a way that brings the system into the 21st century to compete globally.

  17. Firstly, Will, I would like to second all those who have thanked you for treating us as adults by bringing up this solution.

    But I’d also like to second tjvitolo’s thoughts, as well as John-W’s. Taking the argument a bit further, one could argue that people who don’t use the MBTA shouldn’t pay taxes that support it, either; fares should cover the full amount.

    That argument seems odd, because it’s obvious to everyone that the vitality of Boston depends on its metropolitan benefits, of which the T is one. I would argue that the same is true of the state as a whole; it would not be what it is without Boston.

    If constituents outside of the Boston area want us to shoulder more of the price of the T, do we get to insist that they shoulder more of the price of their roads? When the question of a gas tax comes up, those same people point out that it would disproportionately affect them, since their cities are less dense and don’t have as much access to public transportation; do we now get to tell them that their argument holds no water — such is the price of living where they do, just as paying for the T is the price for living near Boston?

    In short, if this is a step towards greater but symmetric nickel-and-diming, then that’s one discussion. But if it’s an asymmetric discussion in which Boston’s bills are itemized while the rest of the state’s aren’t, that doesn’t seem fair.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Massachusetts, which is more willing to invest to benefit the common wealth of all, weathered the economic downturn better than the US as a whole. We’re all in this together.

  18. I used to work at Lane Transit District in Eugene, Oregon, which was funded through a special district payroll tax (0.7%, I believe). TriMet in Portland, Oregon, is funded the same way. Both transit systems are held up as national models. It’s not clear why there would be constitutional problems with this system in Massachusetts, but I like the idea.

  19. If the idea of an MBTA own tax base can’t get through, maybe the debt relief can. Why should public transport users have to help pay for the Big Dig, which only benefits the drivers of cars? That would be some progress.

  20. I drive and use the T, I think a small increase in the gas tax marked specifically for mass transit (outside greater Boston also, since it’s a statewide tax) would be part of the solution. As a T rider I welcome anything that helps improve service and keep fares down, and as a driver I realize every person using the T is one less car on the road, possibly in front of me

  21. Will,

    I think a regional approach makes sense, but it’s not clear to me how any taxes would then be assessed. I don’t think too many people would accept the MBTA doing so on its own.

    I’m a strong proponent of raising the gas tax which, except for a small fund to clean up underground storage tanks, hasn’t been increased for over two decades. During the same time, the MBTA has raised its fares five times.

    Is there any way the gas tax could be raised solely within the MBTA service area?

  22. When I originally posted, I raised some concerns about using the property tax or the sales tax. I still have concerns about how the MBTA would assign taxes.

    However, as I have thought about this, I realize that what bothers me most is that the property tax, the sales tax and, for that matter, a gasoline tax are all regressive taxes. They hit people who can afford them the least, hardest. Many of these people are also people who use the MBTA. I wonder if it is possible to use the income tax – or some portion of it – instead. I don’t know if the income tax can be used that way but it would be more fair.

  23. The gas tax often gets criticized as being regressive, but the alternatives we’ve often used to avoid increasing it are often even more regressive. Since the gas tax was last increased more than 20 years ago, we’ve had five increases in MBTA fares, and increases in automobile registration fees, among other ways of increasing revenue. Poor and expensive mass transit also in effect is a regressive tax on those who can’t afford automobiles or downtown parking rates.

  24. I’m fine with the gas tax. Hard to raise it only within the MBTA service area. My approach would be to raise it statewide and then allocate it back to the area in which it was raised — every driver would know that their gas tax money was going back into their own region. Regions would choose how to allocate the funding between transit and other purposes using the existing regional funding planning process.

  25. Exactly right, Will! A tax that hits everyone who drives, equally and yet supports the transit that many people without cars completely rely on. These same people do not pay the tax so it isn’t a burden the way increased fares are. Thanks.

  26. These conversations always seem to start with where to find additional funding for a bureaucracy. My view is that they should start with asking how well the bureaucracy under discussion is managing their existing budget.

    If existing funds are being mismanaged then one can forecast with confidence that additional funds will also be mismanaged. If existing funds are being well managed then one can forecast with confidence that the public will get good value from allocating additional funds to the bureaucracy.

    In the case of the MBTA, all one has to do is make use of the system to see first-hand that existing funds are being horribly mismanaged. Everywhere one goes in the system the one sees a decaying physical plant and countless people standing (and sitting) around doing nothing.

    Rewarding bad service will only encourage more bad service. Indeed, the public’s message to the bureaucracy is “If you give good service then you don’t need more funds but if you give bad service then we’ll grant you more funds.” Surprise, surprise. The bureaucracy hunts for ways to degrade its service even more because that’s what the electorate rewards.

  27. I agree with Scott that if existing funds are being mismanaged than additional funds will be too. But, it’s not at all obvious to me [a regular bus, Green Line, and Red Line rider] that the existing funds are being horribly mismanaged.

    It’s true, the system has a decaying plant, but that suggests that the system is being managed reasonably well with insufficient funds, not that it is being mismanaged. As for “countless people standing (and sitting) around doing nothing”, I just don’t see it. I see operators. I see dispatchers. I see customer service agents in major stations serving a variety of roles from fare collection enforcement to security to assistance for the disabled to public ambassadors. Sometimes, their role is to simply watch, and frankly, they make up a tiny percentage of MBTA employees anyway.

    I don’t think the MBTA provides bad service. I think the MBTA provides good service most of the time, despite being underfunded. I think that they could provide both more and better service with more funds. Are there things that could be improved with their operations, their contracts, their purchasing? Of course. There’s *always* room for improvement, in every organization.

    P.S. Personally, I think the weakest component of the MBTA is the MBTA police and inspectors — I’d love to see them out and about more, ticketing and towing cars parked in bus stops, providing middle door fare enforcement on the Green Line, ticketing people smoking at stops and stations, etc.

  28. Great points Scott! Patrick wants some of those Billion dollars going into air transportation. The $25M invested in Worcester Airport resulted in the only major carrier leaving, and we are still paying big salaries to administrators of the white elephant.

    Carolyn, I don’t follow your comment. People who drive pay a gas tax that doesn’t cover the public cost. People who use the T pay a fare that doesn’t cover the cost. Same story.

    I do find complaints about gas prices silly sometimes. Democrat voters will spend as much or more on a 16 ounce mocachino at Starbucks as a whole gallon of gas, yet only complain about the cost of gas!

  29. Mark K
    It was just in response to claim that gas tax is regressive and hurts the poor the most. In fact, many of the “poor” or dedicated users of the T don’t have cars and therefore their support is the fare only. Ergo, gas tax doesn’t hurt them as claimed.

  30. Carolyn, a gas tax very much hurts those who do not drive! The price of everything delivered by truck goes up – food, clothing, diapers etc. Costs to remove trash and transport school children for municipalities goes up too. Everything would need to be transported by foot, bicycle, MBTA, or horse and wagon before an increased gas tax has little effect on everything.

  31. Saying that the debt problem is a myth because the state gives the T more than enough to cover it is really intellectually dishonest. The accurate way to describe the situation is that the debt service bleeds away a huge part of the state’s T funding. NONE of that debt belongs on the MBTA. You know that. It was snuck in there to cover up the multifarious mistakes of the Big Dig honchos. It should all be piled back onto the state, where it belongs — and the T should be reimbursed for its payments to date, with interest.

    As to giving the T taxing power: What kind of policy position is this? Should all public services have their own taxing power? Should the school departments have their own taxing power? The parks departments? The state colleges? No. In fact, one of the reasons we have to get rid of the various Authorities is that they are allowed/forced to raise their own money, creating all sorts of conflicts of interest, corruption, privatization schemes, risky business practices, and distortion of service priorities — and in the end, the state has to bail them out when it all collapses — viz the Turnpike Authority, whose bail-out left the debt now wrecking the MBTA. The state should fund all state services with full state accountability for service policy and efficiency, and priorities should be set among them in transparent public processes — instead of the back-room horse-trading currently exempted from the Open Meeting Law. If there is going to be a tax increase or a new tax stream, the Governor should be fully accountable, instead of shrugging off the responsibility to unaccountable agencies.

    Finally: I continue to be amazed that the subject of T funding is discussed in a bubble, as if the money has to somehow be generated within the transportation system. As you know well, billions of state dollars disappear annually in unevaluated corporate tax expenditures and tax breaks, grants, sweetheart land and regulatory deals, etc. Yet, shortfalls in service departments are only discussed in their own pods; the two dots are never connected by political officials. That’s why the public never complains about these give-aways; their leaders do not tell them that, as Jesse James said, you have to go where the money is. That’s our money, our tax money, swirling down the tubes, without demonstrated public benefit. Then the Guv turns his pockets inside out and shrugs, and we scramble for arcane schemes that inevitably backfire because they deny the essential purpose of government.

    Instead of a forum on creating a new taxing authority, please start to deal more systematically with this and other service funding shortfalls by creating a forum on corporate welfare. Post links to all the info that the state is providing on these giveaways, point out the transparency gaps that are still hiding our money from us and get them filled with disclosures, and offer a trial balloon that will put our existing tax revenues to use for us. Sure, it’s harder to get politicians to cross corporations than to to shake down desperate transit users, but it can be done — with pressure from an educated citizenry.

  32. Mark,

    One of the problems with the current low gas tax is that it doesn’t cover the full cost of internal combustion engines, including global warming, the effects of pollution on health, the need to maintain a strong material to protect supply, etc. It’s true that the costs of many items would increase if the price of gas were raised to cover these expenses, but that makes sense. One of the reasons that jobs move overseas is that transportation is cheaper than it should be. If it were more expensive to ship products from Asia, more might be made here, meaning more jobs and a stronger economy in the US.

  33. Very good discussion. I think raising the income tax as Gov. Patrick proposes is the best solution. We have been underfunding capital needs for many years and a permanent funding mechanism needs to be in place. We are all members of the commonwealth and sometimes you just need more revenue.

  34. Thanks to all above for weighing in on this topic.

    A lot of very good points were made. My bottom line take away is that a regional vote on taxes for transit raises a host of complex issues. It has its virtues, but would take a few years of development and consensus building to attain credibility.

    The simpler alternative, which I do see as gaining momentum in the conversation, is raising funds from transportation users — through gas taxation, open road tolling, congestion fees, etc. These can be allocated back to regions from which they are raised.

    The income tax approach that the Governor has raised also has merit, but seems not to be gaining momentum.

    Thanks again to all for the very thoughtful contributions.

  35. A few things:

    “Arguably, the economic health of Massachusetts, perhaps New England as a whole, depends on the health of Greater Boston. Perhaps, but growth in many other regions of the state has lagged growth in Boston.”

    Looking at the table for Metropolitan Divisions for 12/11 to 11/11, the growth ratios look fairly consistent across all of them. I only eyeballed the data but I don’t see any huge disparities in terms of change rates. Further, where is the data for the Rt. 128 corridor including Waltham, Lexington, Burlington and Woburn? This is another very important area for the state and I don’t see it represented. There are areas along Rt 495 that are similar. Certainly it feels like Boston is very important economically to the region, but I’d argue we have other problems if its importance is that overwhelming.

    ” Additionally, understandable political pressures to limit fare increases and to avoid cutting services contribute to the strain on the MBTA’s budget.”

    What are these political pressures and why are they understandable? The state has never hesitated to raise tolls on the Mass Pike when that transportation service is also very important economically. Why is the MBTA different? Further, why is there no balance? The primary benefit of the MBTA is to the people who use it. There is most likely a benefit to the region, including to those who don’t use it, but that benefit is less tangible and proving that it benefits the whole state’s economy is tenuous. Certainly the benefit is very low to someone in Springfield, even though that person’s vehicle inspection fee helps fund the T.

    There has to be some balance and I don’t see it here.

  36. My guess is the “understandable political pressures” is that metro Boston politicians seem to value votes of MBTA users than others who would be forced to pay more. Simple enough.

  37. Will,

    Responding to the revenue side, “More likely, it would be an increment on sales or property taxes within the service area.”

    As a resident and property owner in Brighton, I can’t say I agree with this or would support it. Boston is notorious for its extremely high percent (perhaps highest in the country) of exempt property. Large Universities continue to buy up valuable real estate yet are asked for only voluntary payments which often are ignored. While these Universities provide obvious benefits, they are also some of the biggest benefactors of the T. The city may as well give BU the B line, as it basically offers door to door service. The green line extension will conveniently end at Tufts.

    A property tax would be an unfair burden on taxpayers like myself while Universities are only asked to chip in for something vital to their success. I’d like to see how quickly BU opens up its checkbook at the notion of shutting down every other stop on the B line. No free rides.

    Addressing the cost side, “wage increases awarded by arbitrators”. Why is this off the table? Everyone else is taking pay cuts, and somehow labor disputes are perfectly acceptable.

    I appreciate your trial balloon, but I think any tax on property owners would just mask the real problems. Let’s go after the big fish.

  38. Yes, I understand that but I’d like to see some real figured on population (and hence representation) served by the MBTA. The MBTA’s web site says they serve a population of 4.8 million in 176 cities and towns. Somehow I seriously doubt those numbers reflect the reality of who actually uses the bulk of MBTA services.

    I’ll be blunt. I use the MBTA (subway) a handful of times per year and I resent having to subsidize the system for all the people who live within walking distance of a subway station and are the vast bulk of users. Yes, I understand having the MBTA helps the region but my state taxes and fees should be applied to our abysmal road infrastructure.

  39. PaulWilson, by that reasoning, should I have to subsidize the road infrastructure less than you do, because I use it less? Should I not have to pay whatever portion of taxes go to schools, because I don’t have any kids? Taking it to an extreme, should we all just not pay *any* taxes and just pay for each service as we use it?

  40. Theoretically, you don’t subsidize the road infrastructure if you don’t use it. Roads are supposed to be, or at least primarily, funded through fuel taxes and possibly other fees and taxes applied to vehicles (excise tax, inspection fees, registration fees, etc).

    Your point about schools is certainly a valid one, but at least those are largely funded through local property taxes, though some towns accept state funding also (some don’t because of the strings attached, like Lincoln). So at least the residents of a town get some benefit to the schools through property values.

    My point regarding the MBTA never said the region doesn’t benefit some. I objected to the funding balance that doesn’t include fair increases. If we’re going to play the game of taking things to extremes, shouldn’t we eliminate MBTA fairs altogether and spread the cost of the system evenly across the whole state? Clearly the answer here is no. At the same time, we really ought to question a funding system that incurs a cost to someone at the other end of the state who will never see a benefit.

  41. Alright, I misunderstood — I thought the objection was to subsiding the MBTA at all, not the balance between it and other spending.

    I do disagree, btw, that even someone at the other end of the state will never see a benefit. I would find it hard to believe that these towns are in no way affected by Boston’s economy, and the MBTA is significant part of that economy.

  42. Thanks for sending up the trial balloon. But now I am going to shoot it down.

    I don’t think an add-on to the property tax is a good way to increase funding for transportation. It would be competing at the ballot box with Prop 2 1/2 overrides, and people are only going to vote in favor of higher taxes so many times. Plus it is regressive, with no distinction based on income.

    I prefer your idea to raise gas taxes and distribute them regionally. What mechanism would determine which towns get the money, or would it be some regional entity, since many projects might affect many different communities? Or would the increase within the district go only to the T? Politically I think it could gain some traction, allowing parts of the state that are outside the MBTA district to get some money for their transit needs.

  43. There is an age old joke:
    “Drunkard dad comes home and says:
    – They’ve added a new tax to my whiskey, so it will cost a buck more for a fifth…
    Son comes asks:
    – Dad, does it means that you’ll drink less?
    Dad answers:
    – No, son, of course not; all that means that you’ll eat less…”

    The relevance of this joke to the whole MBTA funding/development discussion is fairly simple. You can add a gas tax, more fees etc., but it won’t have the desirable effect (less drivers in Boston/Cambridge business areas). Mind the fact that it is hard to price out the drivers who are driving and PARKING there. It’s already over the top. And people who do drive are falling into two general categories. Either those who making enough to ignore any price increase, or those tho can’t afford to live in the metropolitan area and have to drive for a job. Later will be hurt disproportionally and business will suffer being unable to recruit an entry level staff.

    Myself as an example, I’ve being living in Watertown for over 10 years. My residence and job are on 70/70A line; a 4 mile commute. In all these years, I took a bus 3 times! Not because I am a driving maniac – quite opposite; I’d love to kick back and relax catching up on work or reading. But that is not the case. Call me unlucky, my bus commute experience was: 20 min waiting for the late bus (which came along with the second one), 45+ minute ride in crumpled (as a result of the delay) space… all that for what normally takes me 20 minutes. After the third try, I gave up trying to be environmentally conscious good citizen, realizing that I will pay whatever for parking, gas, tolls etc.; just not to deal with public transportation anymore.

    My point? In my experience in other US cities and especially abroad, public transportation is and must be a viable option, but as long as it is reliable and functional. Which MBTA is NOT.

    So, unless the structural problems of MBTA are resolved (schedules, routs, reliability and DRIVERS’ DISCIPLINE to name a few), other efforts to clamp on drivers will be futile and harmful.

    In other words: if you build it, they WILL come. But not before.

    And a few words about bicycling. It’s a nice option to have, but come on, it’s Boston! It’s not a year round option for everyone even living in the city!

  44. A belated comment: when the Alewife Garage was built, it was proudly presented as being able to support at least two additional levels of parking. Since the garage is often full before rush hour ends, it would certainly help ridership if funds could be found to increase the size of the garage. Probably not high on anyone’s list, but certainly would be a boon for those who still want to commute from there after driving in from the suburbs.

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