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State House and Senate negotiators agreed late Tuesday on a bill that would raise $500 million in new revenue, including hikes in gasoline and cigarette taxes, to shore up the state's aging and debt-ridden transportation system.
A six-member conference committee announced the compromise after closed-door talks over the last two months. The House and Senate passed versions of the bill in the spring and the new bill now goes back to both chambers for up or down votes, possibly as early as Wednesday.
According to lawmakers, the measure would close a projected $118 million deficit facing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in the fiscal year that starts on Monday, heading off any need for further fare hikes or service cuts on the transit system.
The legislation would also end the practice of borrowing to pay the salaries of state transportation workers and requires the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to formulate plans for putting tolls on additional state highways, including those near the borders of other states.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray called the compromise "a responsible and reasonable use of revenues" that would close a longstanding gap in transportation funding and support infrastructure improvements including expansion of the Green Line to Medford and commuter rail service to the South Coast.
"It does not offer a blank check to the Department of Transportation or the MBTA but instead holds the two agencies accountable for their own fiscal management and commitment to reform," the Democratic leaders said.
A veto threat by Gov. Deval Patrick has hovered over the bill for months. In January, Patrick called for $1.9 billion in new taxes, including a hike in the state income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent. About $1 billion of the new revenue under the governor's plan would have been dedicated to transportation.
The Legislature, however, approved $500 million in new taxes, including a 3 cent hike in the gasoline tax to 24 cents per gallon and a $1 increase in the tax on cigarettes.
Patrick said he would veto the House-passed version of the bill if it reached his desk, but later called the Senate version a step in the right direction.
The compromise unveiled Tuesday incorporates several elements from the Senate bill, including a pledge to dedicate an additional $805 million to transportation annually by fiscal 2018. It would also generate additional revenue by redirecting an existing 2.5 cents per gallon gasoline surcharge from the cleanup of underground storage tanks to transportation needs.
There was no immediate comment Tuesday from the governor or other administration officials on the conference committee's bill. The administration has also expressed concern that lawmakers were setting unrealistic expectations for transportation agencies to raise revenue through future increases in fares, tolls or other types of fees.
Murray and DeLeo said they hoped the measure would be sent to Patrick's desk and signed in a "timely manner."
Lawmakers who took part in the negotiations promised the bill would address the state's most pressing transportation needs.
"A modest increase in taxes will secure the financial stability of our transportation system, and by guaranteeing $805 million in new transportation resources we are securing our infrastructure and the efficiency of our future investments," said Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
This program aired on June 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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