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Former Mass. Transportation Secretary Urges Bold Changes To Transit Funding

BOSTON — By Monday, Massachusetts transportation officials must come up with a plan to put the state’s roads, bridges and rails on the right track.

Official estimates show the state could need up to $1 billion a year in new revenue to meet highway and mass transit needs.

Former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi said the state needs to make dramatic changes to invest in transportation, such as increasing the state gas tax or implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax. He recently outlined these and several other funding recommendations for CommonWealth Magazine.

“People need to come to grips with a few realities,” Aloisi said about accepting an increased state gas tax, which has not been raised since 1991.

“There’s no commodity that anyone buys in Massachusetts that hasn’t gone up in price since 1991 or gone up with inflation,” Aloisi said. “Number two, we’ve created an entirely inequitable approach to transportation financing by forcing fare increases on transit riders and keeping vehicular motorists free from sharing the burden.”

Aloisi knows it’s a tough sell. It’s one he tried, and ultimately failed, to make when he was the transportation secretary in 2009 and Gov. Deval Patrick proposed raising the state gas tax 19 cents per gallon.

Still, Aloisi says the additional amount is about the same as two to three cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee a year.

“It sounds like a lot, but when you think about how much people use, it doesn’t,” he said.

For Aloisi, increasing the gas tax is about the big picture.

“We need to understand that our future in terms of energy security, in terms of environmental protection, in terms of mobility depends upon a more realistic and honest appraisal of the cost of vehicular mobility and the way it is dragging us down in many ways.”

The fairest approach, according to Aloisi, is taxing vehicle miles traveled. Under this proposal, vehicles would be outfitted with GPS equipment that tracks the number of miles traveled on state roads. Car owners would then be assessed a fee based on that mileage and the location. As Aloisi explained, it could be a broad-based fee for rural areas that increases for more urban or congested areas.

Aloisi said the state needs to improve mass transit between suburban and urban areas to help people who live in the suburbs but have to commute into the Boston area. Part of that may include some incentives to take mass transit into cities such as Boston, which could help lower the costs.

In 2009, Patrick and lawmakers overhauled the state’s transportation agencies, combining them into one agency, and closed pension loopholes.

Aloisi said those and other reforms have squeezed out inefficiencies.

“So I don’t think that the solution here is to go back to the same, frankly tired old arguments about cutting and reforming, because it only nibbles at the margin,” Aloisi said.

The reality, he said, is the mass transit system is old, expanding and in need of repairs because it has been “chronically underfunded” for years.

“The way to solve that is to do something big and bold and fair and structural,” Aloisi said. “It’s not to nibble away at the edges and it’s not to create the sort of red herrings of the past.”

In the end, it depends on what lawmakers decide to do to create stable funding for the state’s transportation needs. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have signaled that transportation is a top agenda item for them this legislative session. That conversation will play out in the months ahead.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.viveiros.7 Christopher Viveiros

    I am a software engineer who writes web applications and web services for a living. I have a master’s degree in computer science. I have to understand data security for work. I understand the technology that is needed to get the VMT (Vehicle Miles
    Traveled) technology to work. I think there is a huge privacy issue with this solution that was not brought up in the interview with Former Mass. Transportation Secretary James Aloisi. The state will have the capability to know where a vehicle is at any time. I don’t think the state has the skills or technology to keep this data safe from hackers. The other privacy issue is who else will have access to this data, law enforcement and insurance companies? Will the state let us know what they do with the data? Will we have control over our own data? I would rather see a 20 cent hike in the gas
    tax that this solution or at least until some of the privacy issues are answered.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Page/100002550930740 Andrew Page

      VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled). I’d rather call it, “We want to know where you’re going.”

      He beat me to the observation of the privacy issue involved in VMT. However, I’m less concerned with hackers than I am the government coming up to you and saying, “Now we require to know how far you’ve driven.” Having that, “Now we want to know the specific destinations/endpoints and times, so we can regulate you to drive more efficiently.”

      Technologically, they already have the data for a VMT. Don’t they check your odometer reading when you get your car inspected? If not, can’t they? But I think someone putting forward any VMT bill is going to float the idea of attaching a GPS receiver to your vehicle to ‘accurately’ track your millage. Boy, wouldn’t you just LOVE to have the hardware/software contract for that one? Didn’t we recently convict the Speaker of the State House for getting a kick back from a software firm? Is there someone in the state house now whispering ‘vmt, vmt, vmt’ in people’s ears?

      The gas tax already performs the function of a VMT. Drive more miles, pay more in gas tax. Unless of course you drive an electric vehicle, they’ll need a new rationale to track you for that.

      I’d much rather pay more gas tax than have to report to the government (local,state or federal) where I’ve been.

      • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.viveiros.7 Christopher Viveiros

        I agree that implementation of a VMT system would be a total boondoggle. How much would the state make after spending the millions to implement it and then maintaining each year. If money needs to be raised then cheapest way to raise it is the gas tax and to increase the fairs on the MBTA.

  • isarose

    Who bought off the Governor so he backs off the gas tax again. What part of “pay for your roads and cut carbon pollution” doesn’t he understand?

    • michaelburns

      We have been paying for the roads all along dimwit. They just don’t use the money for what it is supposed to be for. What part of that don’t you understand?

  • Scott

    Mr. Aloisi mentioned that the tax on gasonline should be raised $0.19 per gallon since it hasn’t been raised since 1991, and that there is no commodity that hasn’t gone up in price since then. Let me remind everyone and Mr. Aloisi that the cost of gasoline has gone up considerably since 1991, if the cost hadn’t changed since 1991 he might have an argument. at $0.19 cents a gallon that’s over $150 a year for me, much more than “a couple of cups of dunkin doughnuts coffee a year”

  • Scott

    The MBTA has been handled like a joke for years, you have a 100 year old system that needs improvements. Try fixing trains and providing better service before you refurbish all the stations with money you don’t have, cutting service and raising fares. The argument is always made that NYC subway fares are more expensive, why shouldn’t Boston’s. Don’t forget that NYC subways are efficient, cover the entire island of Manhattan and surrounding areas, and the train runs 24 hours a day. I am still furious that fares have been hiked while the MBTA complains that they have crushing debt but still are rennovating their stations, instad of providing better service. No other business is allowed to charge more money with the promise that they’ll do better. Imagine McDonalds promised that they’d provide better food in a few years if you started paying $8 for a cheeseburger today!

  • Scott

    Mr. Aloisi also mentioned that they needed this Vehicle Mileage Tracking Tax. The whole reason I drive 40 miles to work is to be able to afford to own a home, and the Commuter rail is much more expensive for a monthly pass than what I spend a month on gas. Not to mention that my wife and I commute together. The cost for both of us to buy monthly commuter rail passes from zone 8 would be $628 a month. Compared to the $250 I spend a month on gas. Now you want to increase my gas cost, and charge me for mileage driven, and give half that money to the MBTA who still charges more than I can afford for the commuter rail, plus I’d have to drive 15 miles to the train because they have such poor coverage in the suburbs, so I still need to pay for a car and gas and mileage. Instead of charging more and pushing people’s budgets further perhaps the city should look at “Tough” reforms to things like the budget and spending habits of the MBTA, and the retirement programs of these agencies. If you can’t cover your budget, you can’t pay your bills, or employees, and you certainly can’t give employees lots of perks, and then you go bankrupt. Then someone else takes your place who is capable of balancing their checkbook.

  • Scott

    And furthermore who is James Aloisi to make any arguments for charging the people more money for anything. His involvement with the Big Dig which was a huge glut of a project riddled with cost over runs and mis-management of funds seems like a very close bedfellow to the horrible state of the MBTA, and the MTA. Why is it that people like this are allowed to stay involved in goverment and politics and big projects for years, continually taking more and more, while being left wholly unaccountable for the wasteful use of public money. The MBTA is broke, charge people more, the MTA can’t afford to fix bridges, charge people more, tax gas, tax mileage, tax people stuck in traffic who are only stuck in that traffic because they can’t afford to live in the city. I drive into work and it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get to work. I used to take the subway and it took me 40 minutes to get across town.

  • The Onceler

    Aloisi talked about raising the gas tax by $0.19 per gallon. He noted that the tax hasn’t gone up since 1991, but in contrast, the cost of all other goods and services *has* gone up, along with inflation. Well, either Aloisi is an idiot, or he thinks that each of us is. Yes, prices have gone up over time. This is the very definition of inflation. The gas tax in MA is not $0.21 per gallon. The cost of gas in 1991 (when that 21 cent tax was set). While the price of gas has more than doubled in that time, it has also far outpaced inflation. So, while there is an argument to be made for doubling the associated tax (which maintains a constant percentage), there is also a counter argument which states that the price of gas is abnormally high. A more consistent tax hike would be about half of what Aloisi suggests.

    What is really troubling is how he then goes on to state that the 19 cent tax would in fact not be that burdensome for the typical person. He states that the increased cost due to the 21 cents of additional tax would amount to about 2 or 3 cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee per year. Let’s examine that. A cup of coffee cost, what, $2.00 or so? Then two or three cups would cost four or six dollars. Let’s be generous to Aloisi and go with $6.00. Divided by the $0.21 tax per gallon, and we are looking at about 30 gallons. So, Aloisi thinks that the average MA citizen uses about 30 gallons of gas PER YEAR. He went on to equivocate about those who might pay more, based on individual choices to drive less fuel efficient vehicles and/or forgo mass transit. When comparing fuel efficient hybrid cars against inefficient vehicles, we will see ranges of fuel efficiency from about 15 mpg to about 45 mpg. So, assume a 3x multiplier for those who choose inefficient vehicles. So, Aloisi assumed that, at most, people will use 90 gallons of fuel per year in order to travel 1350 miles. Per year.

    I know that my wife, who is a stay-at-home mom, drives about 10k miles per year in her car. And I drive about 35k miles per year in my work vehicle. At a minimum, I would be driving 10k miles per year just to get back and forth to my office. Even aside from that, a common lease agreement allots what? 15k miles per year?

    Who among us actually expects to drive only 1350 miles in a given year? It’s preposterous.

    At 10k miles per year, the 21 cent tax increase would on average amount to $70 or $100 per year. That may not break the bank, but is is a far cry from a few cups of coffee. If we are going to have the discussion, can’t we be honest in the process?

    Aloisi then goes on to talk about the “Miles Traveled” tax framework, and all of the “technology” that we have today to enable this to work. First, whether one agrees that it is a good idea, why do we need ANY tracking technology? Aren’t we already required to bring our vehicles for yearly inspections? Why cannot the odometer be checked at that time, and either a tax be then levied, or the data submitted to the state and levied subsequently? Why must the state track your movements in real time in order to ascertain the number of miles traveled?

    Aside from that, even if I never drive on a public road, as a citizen, I derive value from that road. Virtually all commerce relies on the system of public roads. Similarly, all public sector services rely on those roads. If I send my kids to school, if the police patrol my neighborhood, if I shop at a local store, etc., etc. All of these require that the road system is in place, yet I have not traveled a single theoretical mile. Why, then, should I not also be taxed? Oh, wait… I am taxed already. The state has income taxes, property taxes, sales tax, etc. Why then must certain individuals be additionally taxed for the fact that they derive value from the same set of roads by driving on them? And, if you own and register a car, you ARE taxed through excise taxes and the existing gas tax.

    He goes on to add insult to injury, insisting that people can avoid that miles traveled tax by utilizing public transportation. Oh, really? Leaving aside the fact that one must still pay handsomely for the use of public transportation, the simple fact is that public transportation does not adequately serve areas outside of our urban centers. The places least served by public transportation are coincidentally the very places where the cost of housing is low enough for the majority of people to live. So, one is required to live far outside the city because that is all that they can afford, and then they are penalized for living far outside the city where no public transit exists. They are expected to drive to some local transit hub, pay the miles traveled tax AND the cost of parking AND the cost of using the transit system, coupled with the significant TIME COST of doing so. How is this even remotely equitable?

    I could consider a rational discussion of some raise in the gas tax, if Aloisi didn’t speak to us as if we were fools, insisting that the cost would be so ridiculously low. However, I cannot stomach a conversation about the miles traveled tax, as it can hardly be made equitable.

  • The Onceler

    Whoops! I seemed to have confused the existing 19 cent tax and the proposed 21 cent tax. Hopefully, you get my points.

  • jmlorimer

    I’m retired but live in the country where there is no pubic transportation and still have to drive about 13,000 miles per year. My car gets maybe 30 mpg. 13,000 divided by 30 is about 433.33 gallons of gasoline per year x 19 cents = $ 82 a year. I do agree that maybe we need to raise the gas tax, but it’s going to cost a lot more than a few cups of coffee. Aloisi needs a remedial math course.

  • steenkinbadges

    More taxes will solve everything! I know this, because liberals tell me so.

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