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Rough Road for Mass. Transport

Massachusetts is facing a transportation crisis. That's the conclusion from a long-awaited report from the Transportation Finance Commission.

Among the bipartisan commission's findings: In the next two decades the state will be almost $20 billion short of money needed just to maintain roads, bridges and public transit across the Commonwealth.

As WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti reports, lawmakers searching for solutions have a rough road ahead.TEXT OF STORY

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The Massachusetts transportation system is in such dire straights, that if the Transportation Finance Commission had an actual alarm bell at the table yesterday, they would have rung it.

STEPHEN SILVEIRA: The report is entitled "Transportation Finance in Massachusetts, An Unsustainable System."

CHAKRABARTI: Commission chairman, Stephen Silveira.

SILVEIRA: We did not choose that title lightly. Our findings are very serious, and fairly grim.

CHAKRABARTI: So grim, the commission's findings read like a turnpike pile up. Roads and bridges across the Commonwealth are crumbling. In the next 20 years the state will be almost $20 billion short of funds needed just to maintain the existing transit infrastructure. Beyond that, Massachusetts lacks the money to make any expansions needed to grow the system and the economy.

Commission member Michael Widmer put the situation in no uncertain terms.

MICHAEL WIDMER: We have to attend to this. And therefore, whatever the combination of difficult political decisions are taken to help address this, people will understand that it's an absolute requirement to do it because walking away is a death knell for the Massachusetts economy.

CHAKRABARTI: The legislature created the commission in 2004, and charged it with presenting Beacon Hill with recommendations to solve funding problems. They shied away from that, saying yesterday's intial report serves more as a "rallying cry". But transportation experts say there are a number of possibilities, such as raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, raising tolls, even partially privatizing roadways. Massachusetts also needs to streamline state transportation agencies, says Richard Dimino, president of the Boston business group, A Better City:

RICHARD DIMINO: Looking at how we might be able to reorganize our transportation organizations and look at how we can more effectively and efficiently spend the resources that we have which I think is a very important part of developing the solutions.

CHAKRABARTI: On Beacon Hill, transportation committee co-chairs Senator Stephen Baddour and Representative Joseph Wagner, both democrats, say they'll soon hold hearings on the commission's findings. Baddour also pointed to the Patrick Administration, saying the governor's office has the first opportunity in decades to oversee a unified transportation system, and needs to "take advantage" of the commission's wake up call. State Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen says the administration's first priority is getting Massachusetts voters on board.

BERNARD COHEN: You know, John Q. Public may see a pothole on the local road but may not have the perspective that it's really the entire state's transportation system that's at risk. And so I think our initial steps are going to be to build awareness around the state that this is problem we need to tackle.

CHAKRABARTI: But many commuters already get it, say some transportation experts. They're burdened by tolls, unhappy with MBTA and other transit services, and frustrated with Big Dig cost overruns. Voters could balk at any measure that further squeezes wallets. Plus, stagnant population growth means Massachusetts can't rely on shrinking federal transportation dollars.

So the transportation finance commission has an even bigger challenge, says Joseph Giglio, a former commission member.

JOSEPH GIGLIO: Where's the context for this report?

CHAKRABARTI: Giglio stepped down late last year, citing a potential conflict of interest when he joined the board of a company that does business in transportation. He says the commission must craft a clear vision for the state's overall future transit needs.

GIGLIO: If you don't know what you're trying to achieve, and why you're trying to achieve it, and you're assuming that the past is going to look like in the future, you're putting the cart before the horse.

CHAKRABARTI: And putting the horse on the wrong track, says Carrie Russell. She's with the environmental advocacy group, the Conservation Law Foundation.

CARRIE RUSSELL: The region is going to suffer and not be competitive. Other states are getting ahead of us in addressing their infrastructure needs, in growing their economy, in improving their quality of life, and that's something Massachusetts needs to do as well.

CHAKRABARTI: A need Commonwealth lawmakers say they recognize. The Transportation Finance Commission will let residents have their say in public hearings scheduled for late April.

For WBUR, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

This program aired on March 29, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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