Lawmakers Send Baker $16.5 Billion Transportation Bond

Uber and Lyft stickers are pictured inside a ride-hailing vehicle outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Nov. 14, 2019. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Uber and Lyft stickers are pictured inside a ride-hailing vehicle outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Nov. 14, 2019. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

House and Senate Democrats forged a late-night compromise on a $16.5 billion transportation bond bill, salvaging consensus in the dying moments of the lawmaking session on a multi-year plan to pay for infrastructure improvements while also raising fees on ride-hailing services.

A final compromise between House and Senate leaders emerged shortly after midnight Wednesday after months of private negotiations, leaving members only a few hours to read the updated version of the 63-page bill (H 5248) before approving it 146-0 in the House and 39-1 in the Senate. Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, cast the lone dissenting vote around 3:20 a.m.

The bill now on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk authorizes billions of dollars in bonds for highway and bridge maintenance, train modernization, and major capital projects such as a Red Line-Blue Line Connector, the extension of commuter rail service to the South Coast, and the approaches to the two Cape Cod bridges.

In a surprise move, the bill calls for increases to the flat per-ride fees charged on app-based services such as Uber and Lyft, a measure the branches addressed in separate legislation but not in either versions of their bond bills.

Another measure requires the MBTA to implement a low-income fare program, which has long been a priority of transit advocates, and those who fail to pay T fares would no longer be subject to arrest.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has created really unprecedented changes to the ways we commute, but this does not mean the ills of our transportation system do not persist," said Sen. Joseph Boncore, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee and led the Senate's negotiations. "Massachusetts needs a new deal on transportation, but included in this bill is a strong foundation to continue that conversation."

With their late-night vote, legislators punctuated the end of the 2020-2021 session by returning to a topic that had dominated debate on Beacon Hill early last year. Still virtually untouched, though, is a related package of tax and fee increases that cleared the House in the spring but died in the Senate without a vote.

Baker filed his original $18 billion transportation bond proposal in July 2019. Governors tend to seek the borrowing authorizations in multi-year increments, and Baker cautioned Monday that the long delay from lawmakers imperiled the upcoming construction season.

"We literally are almost out of transportation bond authority, and we need that bill for the spring construction and summer construction season, and we also need it to sign multi-year agreements that involve federal reimbursement," Baker said. "You have to actually demonstrate to the feds that you have the authorization to pay for a federally supported project, which in many cases take a couple of years to actually have the feds sign off and say, 'yes, you can spend the money.'"

Several provisions Baker sought in his first draft of the bill did not make it into the version on his desk, such as a tax credit for employers who encourage working from home.

The bill lands in a vastly different climate than when Baker first proposed it. Commuting patterns evolved significantly during the pandemic, with ridership on public transit cratering — and a massive budget headache erupting at the T as a result — and some employers indicating they may keep remote work options in place for the foreseeable future.

The House approved its $18 billion bond bill in March, one day after it authorized a package of tax and fee increases — including the first state gas tax increase in seven years — that Democratic leaders said could raise as much as $600 million annually to invest in crumbling infrastructure and aging public transit.

In the Senate, however, the revenue bill faltered without a vote as lawmakers bristled at the idea of hiking taxes during a pandemic-fueled recession, frustrating House leaders who felt they had taken a tough vote.

One major element from the House's tax package, ride-hailing fee increases, made it into the borrowing bill.

Under the compromise bond bill, the assessments charged for trips on platforms such as Uber and Lyft would increase from $0.20 per ride of any type to $0.40 per shared ride, $1.20 per non-shared ride, and $2.20 per non-shared ride in a luxury vehicle.

Boncore said on the Senate floor that the increases are intended to "change commuter behavior by incentivizing commuters to request a shared ride for a lower fee or use public transit."

Negotiators spliced that language into the compromise even though neither underlying bond bill tackled transportation network company, or TNC, fees. The House included similar increases in its tax bill, while the Senate adopted an amendment containing a new fee structure to its version of the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Baker previously suggested raising the fees on the companies to $1 per ride, warning that their growing presence on Massachusetts roadways contributed to worsening traffic. It is not clear if he will view the Legislature's proposed hikes, which are likely to generate pushback from the companies, as excessive.

The bill would create a commission to study congestion pricing, a strategy that would alter tolls at different times to incentivize off-peak travel, and it would create violations for drivers who park their vehicles in designated bus lanes.

Several other notable provisions approved in either the House or Senate bills did not make it into the final compromise, including authorization for cities and towns to pursue their own revenue-raising regional ballot initiatives and "value capture" models to collect funds from real estate development near highways or transit.

Unlike the original House bill, which called for adding two members to the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, the conference committee's proposal does not expand the T's oversight panel.

Baker now has 10 days to decide the bill's fate, which, in a reflection of the pandemic's unprecedented upheaval, will play out entirely during the brand-new lawmaking session that begins Wednesday.

John Pourbaix, executive director of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts group, said the bill's success will help keep workers who might have faced steep cuts afloat.

"Passage of this bill allows MassDOT and the MBTA to continue procuring the vast list of capital projects which will preserve thousands of jobs for the hard working men and women in the transportation construction industry and, in turn, will help the state's economic recovery and improve public safety," Pourbaix said.



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