Gov. Deval Patrick on Friday proposed a 19-cent increase in the state gas tax - making it the highest in the nation - and streamlining the state's transportation bureaucracy as the best way to help fix Massachusetts' debt-ridden transportation system.
The plan to reform a transportation system that is billions of dollars in debt, due primarily to the Big Dig, avoids a proposed toll increase on the Massachusetts Turnpike that caused public outcry when it was approved in November. Patrick said the tax increase would raise about $500 million annually, though that wouldn't be enough to completely eliminate tolls.
"We've tried to strike a balance between the most immediate needs where we can put our transportation network on more secure fiscal and financial foundation without asking something unreasonable from travelers," Patrick said. "All of it is tough and there's nothing here that isn't a heavy lift."
Patrick compared the monthly cost to drivers - about $8 - to the cost of one large cup of coffee a week.
The 19-cent increase gives the state a gas tax of 42.5 cents, which Patrick said would address $5 billion of lingering debt at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and $2.2 billion in debt at the Turnpike.
Patrick said while the proposed gas tax was enough to stave off the toll increase - $7 at the Boston Harbor tunnels and $2 at the Allston-Brighton and Weston tollbooths - it would take another 15 cents to eliminate tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike altogether. In order to fix all the state's transportation problems, Patrick said, it would take an additional 73 cents on the gas tax.
The proposed 19-cent hike must be approved by the Legislature.
The Turnpike Board plans to vote on the toll increase next week to avoid a credit rating downgrade. The governor said if the Legislature is unable to pass Patrick's plan before then, he will ask Secretary of Transportation James Aloisi to make the vote conditional - once the Legislature passes the gas tax increase, the board will remove the toll increase.
The governor has said earlier he would not seek a tax increase without getting legislative support for overhauling the state's transportation bureaucracy through reforms, such as abolishing the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
"Reforms are as indispensable a part of this proposal as is the new revenue," Patrick said. "We must have the reforms for reasons of efficiency, for cost savings, for reasons of regaining the confidence of the public and reasons of our long term strength."
Patrick's reorganization plan would create one Executive Office of Transportation with four divisions: Highway, Rail & Transit, Aviation & Port and Registry of Motor Vehicles. It also creates an Office of Performance Management to ensure public accountability.
The plan eliminates 300 positions and ends special perks in the employee pension system at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Patrick said.
He also said it would make the transportation system more environmentally responsible through steps such as increased investment in public transportation outside Boston and adopting various standards to build and buy in environmentally friendly ways.
An earlier draft of Patrick's plan, obtained by The Associated Press, proposed installing chips in vehicle inspection stickers to track mileage driven on state roads and charge drivers a tax. Aloisi said the administration is asking the Registry of Motor Vehicles to look into technology and initiatives for the program, but did not have a timeline for implementation.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the governor's plan was a good framework for needed reform and revenue but 19 cents may not be the "magic number" for a gas tax increase.
"At the end of the day, will you see changes from the House proposal? Sure you will," DeLeo said. "I'm not prepared to say we'll go as high as the governor."
Senate President Therese Murray, who filed a transportation reform bill on Feb. 5, has said the Legislature must seek reform before revenue, reshaping the transportation bureaucracy and considering privatization of some functions.
"The Governor's plan and the Senate's bill share the same goals and identify many of the same opportunities in terms of serious transportation reform, which is so desperately needed," Murray said in a statement. "I look forward to the Governor filing a bill so we can begin holding public hearings on all of our efforts and put something in place that is best for everyone in every part of the state."
Turnpike Authority Board member Mary Connaughton, a Framingham resident who was the only board member to vote against the toll increase, criticized Patrick's decision to raise the gas tax without eliminating tolls.
"It's absurd to ask tollpayers to pay an increased gas tax without substantial toll elimination. It's simply perpetuating the great unfairness and deepening inequity," Connaughton said. "The governor had a prime opportunity to fix this and he failed."
This program aired on February 21, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.