Former Mass. Transportation Secretary Urges Bold Changes To Transit Funding

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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.

This program aired on January 4, 2013.

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Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.



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