Vetting the Transportation Plan

Last week, Governor Patrick filed legislation implementing his transportation investment program.  Hearings will begin soon and it’s worth understanding how the vetting process will work.

In January, the Governor filed his budget proposal, which is a proposed law, subject to the usual legislative hearing process.  In addition, he rolled out his transportation vision document, called “The Way Forward.”  The Way Forward document is not a proposed law, and so has not, so far, been directly subject to the legislative hearing process.

The Way Forward document identifies transportation operating deficits and also conceives a 10 year capital investment program financed by longer-term bonding.  Since the program contemplates borrowing, it  requires a bond authorization from the legislature — that is the bill that the Governor filed recently.

The paragraphs of the governor’s bill map back to the major sections of his plan.  The Transportation Committee’s hearings on the bill will be the primary hearings focused on the necessity and cost-effectiveness of specific elements of the plan.

I will appear to testify in particular support of the elements of the plan pertaining to MBTA.  Not only do we need to bring the basic components of the MBTA into a state of good repair, so as to improve reliability, but we also need to improve capacity.  The Red Line, and, especially the Green Line, often simply lack the necessary carrying capacity at rush hour.  Longer and/or more frequent trains require more cars in good working order.  Additionally, we need to invest in power and signal upgrades to support the additional cars.

After the Transportation Committee finishes its hearings, it will report out a version of the bond authorization which may, in effect, amend the Governor’s transportation plan.  Although there is broad consensus that very roughly $1 billion per year of additional revenue is necessary, there is not complete consensus on the elements of the plan.

The bond bill will then go to the House Bonding Committee where the questions about specific elements may get a further hearing.  The additional question will be whether the proposed increase in indebtedness is fiscally prudent in light of all of the pending bonding needs of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts does already have a relatively high level of indebtedness.

Ultimately, the bond authorization will go to the House Ways and Means committee and that’s where the plan will have to tie back into the budget.  The increased indebtedness will require increased revenue to cover it.  Additionally, we need increased revenue to fund the operating deficits within the MBTA and the Department of Transportation which have been papered over by borrowing.

After the House takes action on the bill, it will go to the Senate where the committee work will be partially recapitulated.  However, in parallel with that sequential committee process, there has been a lot of informal consultation going on.

My impression is that all of the players in the process have a strong commitment both to increased investment and to fiscal prudence.  Increased revenues will be used first to close transportation operating gaps in a permanent way and second to put in place the revenues necessary to safely cover the transportation borrowing program.  The fact that, as new indebtedness issues each year, the costs of the programmed debt service will grow means that the revenue increases could be phased in gradually, reducing the shock to taxpayers.

I’m quite hopeful that, at least as to transportation, a plan worthy of broad support will emerge.  The other elements of the Governor’s budget, many of which I also passionately support, will get fuller consideration after the transportation plan takes final shape.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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