Support the news

Mass. Senate Weighs Transportation Finance Bill

This article is more than 7 years old.

The state Senate, meeting in a rare Saturday session, weighed the latest version of a contentious bill that would pump more dollars into the state's aging and debt-ridden transportation system.

The measure, calling for about $500 million in new taxes, was approved Monday by the House in the face of a veto threat from Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who criticized the bill as insufficient to deal with the state's long-term transportation needs.

A revised version approved later in the week by a key Senate panel would dedicate more revenue to transportation needs than the House-passed version, something Patrick called a step in the right direction. But the governor stopped short of saying whether he would accept the Senate plan, if approved.

Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Stephen Brewer urged colleagues at the outset of the debate to ignore the sometimes harsh rhetoric surrounding the bill.

"There has been a lot of emotion and a serious case of hardball politics over the last couple of weeks in this regard," said Brewer, D-Barre. "I am very proud that during that time this body did not get caught up in emotion but instead worked collaboratively to make a good piece of legislation even better."

Senators were considering more than 100 proposed amendments to the bill. Among those that failed was a move by the tiny Republican caucus to strip out the $500 million in proposed new taxes and increase funds available for transportation through administrative reforms and other revenue sources, including future casino licenses.

The state should not "tax first, ask questions later," Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr said.

But Brewer said eliminating taxes would be tantamount to putting the entire transportation plan "into the shredder."

Senate President Therese Murray asked court officers to clear the Senate gallery of spectators after the debate was briefly disrupted by about two dozen protesters opposed to new taxes. Many in the group went to the Statehouse after attending a Boston Common tea party rally featuring anti-tax activist Grover Nordquist.

"I don't understand why there isn't tremendous outrage" over the new taxes, said Ed Purtz, of Salem, who was among those evicted from the gallery.

Senators approved an amendment that would prod the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority into selling naming rights for subway and commuter rail stations, a move that backers said could generate another $20 million in revenue for the cash-strapped agency.

Opponents objected to the notion of attaching corporate names to iconic downtown subway stations such as Park Street or Copley.

"Naming rights is a place where I draw the line," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston. "I don't honestly know what is the price tag we can appropriately put on our history."

Backers, however, said they believed the T could sell naming rights creatively while respecting tradition and pointed to the many newer stations that have no historical significance.

The plan offered by Democratic leaders called for raising the state's gasoline tax by 3 cents, to 24 cents a gallon, and indexing future increases in the tax to inflation. It would also increase the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, to $3.51, and boost the excise tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco.

The bill also expands the sales tax to computer design services and software modifications and changes the way utilities are classified for tax purposes.

Lawmakers rejected a much larger, $1.9 billion tax plan proposed by Patrick that included an increase in the state income tax to generate new revenue for transportation and education.

Patrick slammed the initial bill offered by lawmakers as a "fiscal shell game" that only pretended to upgrade a transportation system that continues to sag under the weight of debt from the massive Big Dig highway project. The governor said the legislators' proposal did not provide enough revenue to fix crumbling infrastructure or embark on new projects, such as extending commuter rail to New Bedford or expanding Boston's South Station.

The governor's plan and the one proposed by legislative leaders sought to erase the MBTA's annual operating deficit and avoid, at least temporarily, the need for further fare hikes or service cuts on the Boston-area transit system. Both plans also called for ending the practice of paying the salaries of state transportation employees with borrowed funds.

And while both plans would dedicate roughly the same amount of revenue to transportation in the next fiscal year starting July 1, the numbers would diverge sharply in future years.

The Patrick administration estimates its plan would provide, on average, $1.1 billion in additional annual transportation funding over the next 10 years, much of it going to capital improvements.

Brewer on Saturday said the five-year Senate plan would reach an estimated $805 million by 2018 and create a "reliable, convenient and affordable transportation system." The bill would generate additional revenue by dedicating an existing 2.5 cents per gallon gasoline surtax to transportation and requiring utilities with equipment on state highways to negotiate right-of-way agreements with the state. Neither measure was in the House-passed version.

But critics of the legislative plan say it would also rely far too heavily on future revenue generated directly by the MBTA or the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, dooming residents to ever-increasing transit fares, turnpike tolls and Registry of Motor Vehicles fees.

Earlier Coverage:

This article was originally published on April 13, 2013.

This program aired on April 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Support the news