House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi on Wednesday made the clearest statement yet by a top Beacon Hill official that raising the state's 23.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax could be a good idea, releasing a statement suggesting the levy as an alternative to doubling tolls.
"Given the excessive proposal now on the table for doubling some tolls, one that will cost drivers in certain areas hundreds of dollars more each year just to get to work, I believe we must seriously consider alternatives like a gas tax increase.
"The fact is, the Massachusetts gas tax is below the national average and, while we would all prefer not to burden drivers with any new cost in difficult times, I believe the gas tax is a fairer way to share our costs and it should be fully considered before any tolls are increased," DiMasi said.
Paying for the Big Dig is one of the key reasons driving toll hikes.
DiMasi's move provides political cover for other Beacon Hill figures who have been loath to discuss raising the gas tax, as the state grapples with a transportation infrastructure funding gap pegged at up to $20 billion over 20 years. Similar to the hefty toll increases preliminarily approved last week by the Turnpike Authority board that Patrick controls, the gas tax proposal emerges in the wake of the Nov. 4 elections.
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, who called the hike "a very bad idea," said, "It took such short time after the election to start talking about tax increases, didn't it? It's almost like record time."
The Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick raised corporate and cigarette taxes this session. A federal transit official last week cautioned that states with solid financial support for infrastructure maintenance and expansion are better positioned to secure assistance as states compete for federal highway and transit funds.
Patrick, who said during his campaign that his administration would not raise the gas tax, told reporters Wednesday, "I'm not hostile to a gas tax. It's not realistic that anybody in this Legislature's going to act on a gas tax before we have to deal with the Big Dig debt at the Turnpike. But we'll look at it, but it's unlikely that there's going to be any action in the Legislature before the end of this calendar year. And I imagine it'll get re-filed next year and we'll take it up then."
Patrick confirmed he was also likely to seek higher Registry fees, saying, "We will do that if necessary to close the deal with Massport."
At a forum on transportation issues last week, Sen. Steven Baddour (D-Methuen), co-chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, said public faith in transportation agencies lagged and needed to be restored.
"I don't think the Legislature today, tomorrow, beginning of next year will vote for any increase in revenues until we take the hard lessons learned and really begin to sort of drill down and reforming and changing the way we do business here in Massachusetts," Baddour said.
Patrick has promised a comprehensive transportation reform package, based on higher tolls, new revenues from the Registry and elsewhere, reduced costs, restructuring the Big Dig debt, and redistributing Turnpike Authority responsibilities to other agencies. The administration has already pursued a number of small-bore reforms.
The Pike board signed off on toll hikes doubling Sumner and Ted Williams tunnel tolls to $7.
An outside commission recommended an 11.5-cent gas tax increase last year.
On Wednesday, panel chair Stephen Silveira, a Boston lobbyist, said the average driver would pay an additional $69 per year under that hike. "I don't look at it as an either/or proposition, but we'll take it," said Silveira said, of the suggestion that elevating the gas tax would offset the need for toll increases.
House Ways and Means chair Rep. Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) called DiMasi's statement "interesting."
"It's something which I would consider, as I would consider a whole host of things," he said of a higher levy. "I'm meeting with some members to see where they are with it."
A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The 23.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax was last increased in 1991, when it rose from 17 cents. It includes a 2.5-cents-per-gallon charge to fund underground storage tank removals and cleanups. In fiscal 2008, the gas tax generated $597 million.
The 2007 Transportation Finance Commission report said the buying power of the gas tax is 14 cents because it's been so long since it was raised. The commission called raising the gas tax "the most viable approach in the short term to meeting our need for additional revenue."
The commission recommended an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, which it said would restore its 1991 value and produce $345 million per year.
Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen said last week that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are down, cutting into gas tax receipts as motorists have cut back due to higher gas prices and turned to alternative fuel vehicles.
"We are looking to develop a new generation of vehicles that are going to be more efficient, consume less gas, maybe move to another source," Cohen said. "So I am not saying that the gas tax is a terrible idea. I'm not supporting it either. I am saying that the question can be raised about whether or not that's the best way to raise revenue if you are looking to continue to reduce VMT and to continue to deploy more fuel efficient cars."
Massachusetts will see a $2 billion reduction in gas tax revenues over 20 years if the average vehicle is able to achieve a 15 percent increase in fuel efficiency by 2026, according to the commission. The average vehicle in Massachusetts consumed 576 gallons of fuel in 2005, representing $135 per year in gas tax payments to the state; an 11.5-cent hike would cost $66 per year per vehicle, the commission said.
A bipartisan group of 36 lawmakers on Tuesday announced support for legislation that would block the Turnpike board from hiking tolls until 2010 "or until a comprehensive transportation plan is passed, whichever is sooner," according to a statement. While tollpayers on the Pike and Tobin Bridge have championed the gas tax as a way to decrease the burden on commuters, some lawmakers see the gas tax as unfairly broadening the burden.
"I still believe that those people who drive the Pike should pay the toll," said Rep. Paul Kujawski, a Democrat who said he drives the road on "an almost daily basis" from his Webster-based district. "I'm not in favor of paying the toll."
Kujawski went on, "I don't think everybody in the state should be responsible for a lot of the things that they do not use. And there was a mechanism in place that was designed to be paid for by a fee, and I think it should continue. I don't necessarily believe that the authority should remain in existence, but I think the mechanisms that were put in place should remain the same. User fees, if you use it, pay for it."
Patrick issued his campaign promise not to raise the gas tax at a Columbus Day parade in Revere during a contentious period in his campaign against Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey. She and Patrick exchanged barbs over who had created the commission, but agreed that a gas tax would not happen under their respective, then-hypothetical administrations.
"As the Governor has said in the past, a gas tax is not his first choice," Patrick spokesman Kyle Sullivan said in an email after DiMasi's statement was released. "It is not something he is hostile to, but he believes it is a tough time to be talking about any broad-based tax increases. The Governor looks forward to talking with the Speaker and other legislators to discuss their proposals to deal with this transportation funding challenge that we have inherited."
Federal Transit Administration Regional Administrator Richard Doyle said at last week's Our Transportation Future forum that Congress is struggling with diminished gas tax revenues.
"There is a realization that the existing financing mechanism that we've been using and Congress has been talking about this, the gas tax, really isn't working anymore," Doyle said. "It is just not bringing in the revenues. In fact, about eighty percent of the transit money comes from the gas tax. So it clearly hasn't made much sense in the past to be encouraging people to drive more so that we could get more money for transit."
This program aired on November 19, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.