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Will the Mass. Senate Salvage Major Transportation Legislation This Year?

The gold-plated dome of the Massachusetts State House against a blue sky, with the Massachusetts flag flying to the right of the dome in the foreground.

The Massachusetts State House in downtown Boston.

In early March, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a major transportation funding bill that would have raised taxes on fossil fuels and corporations to generate an additional $500 million a year for the Commonwealth's transportation systems.

One week later, Tom Hanks tweeted that he and his wife were sick, the NBA suspended their season, and the nation's economy started shutting down. The House transportation bill has languished in a growing pile of unfinished business along with other pressing matters, like legislation on police accountability and the annual budget, all of which faces a July 31 deadline (the last day of this legislature's formal sessions).

The Senate looks increasingly unlikely to debate the tax increases that the House approved in March. Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), the Chair of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation, told Chris Lisinski of the State House News Service that the pandemic has forced lawmakers to take a more cautious view of the Commonwealth's finances, and “shifted the conversation from a discussion that was isolated to transportation improvement, to a broader debate on what the state needs as a whole for revenue going forward.”

Instead, the Senate is scheduled to debate this week a $16.9 billion bond bill that would authorize more debt to pay for transportation infrastructure projects. The bill would help complete major construction projects, but in general, it would not generate new tax revenues to pay for this debt, or to support transit agencies like the MBTA in their annual operating budgets.

In the bill's initial draft, about $9 billion of the bonds would finance highways and bridges, $5.5 billion would benefit the MBTA (with major earmarks included for the South Coast Rail commuter rail project, the Green Line Extension, and South Station upgrades), $330 million would go to other regional transit authorities, and the rest would be divvied up among smaller projects and programs.

While there aren't any major new sources of tax revenue included, the Senate bill does adopt several significant policy measures, including decriminalizing fare evasion on the MBTA, letting municipalities levy their own local tax surcharges to help fund transportation projects, establishing "a special commission on roadway and congestion pricing," and setting a Dec. 31, 2021 deadline for MassDOT to propose a fairer toll pricing regime for interstate highways.

The Senate bill would also grant the MBTA's request to use bond funds to pay workers who are planning and administering construction projects like the Green Line Extension and regional rail upgrades, thus freeing up some money for the T's cash-strapped annual operating budget.

As of the Monday evening filing deadline, Senators have proposed 275 amendments to the bill, many of which are earmarks for projects in Senators' home districts. But advocates from Transportation for Massachusetts, TransitMatters, and other advocacy groups are rallying their supporters to call their Senators and secure support for several amendments that would have a statewide impact. Among them:

    • Amendment 132 from Sen. Nick Collins (D-Boston) would create a congestion pricing pilot program in 2021, "to test the technological feasibility of charging toll rates that are different depending on the time of day, with the goal of relieving congestion for motorists."
    • Amendment 138 from Sen. Brendan P. Crighton (D-Lynn) would establish a 6.25 percent tax on Uber and Lyft rides (discounted to 4.25 percent for shared rides).
    • Amendment 150 from Sen. Collins would increase the bill's funding for planned rapid transit upgrades to the MBTA's commuter rail system, from $150 million in the original bill to $350 million, to fund more level-boarding platforms at stations, and electrification of three commuter rail lines.
    • Amendment 210 from Sen. Harriette L. Chandler (D-Worcester) would increase the bill's funding for "complete streets" projects from $20 million to $50 million, and require that 1/3rd of those funds be spent in lower-income communities.
    • Amendment 225, from Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen (D-Somerville), would authorize cities and towns to levy new local taxes "on commercial parking spaces in lots that exceed 50 spaces" – a source of revenue that would also give landowners a financial incentive to build less parking.
    • Amendement 249, also from Sen. Chandler, would give regional transit authorities more reliable state funding by indexing their annual operating assistance to the rate of inflation.

Chris Dempsey, Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said in a phone call Monday afternoon that he was “disappointed" that the Senate wouldn't debate the new transportation revenues that the House endorsed in March. But he added that he was "still hopeful that some new financial resources could come out of the conference committee after this bill gets passed."

Dempsey added that he was "more positive about some of the policies that the Senate bill includes, such as regional ballot initiatives and the commission on regional road pricing. These kinds of policies give us an opportunity to improve our transportation system in every corner of the state.”

A floor vote for the amended bill has been scheduled for Thursday. If passed, it would need to be reconciled with an $18 billion borrowing package that the House approved in March, on the day after its members approved the gas tax increase.

Interest rates for government bonds are at historically low rates, but there's still some uncertainty over how Massachusetts will pay for all this debt.

Governor Baker, who filed a $18 billion bond proposal nearly one year ago, has argued in the past that new tax revenues would not be needed to pay the debt on these projects, but his administration had also assumed that some costs could be paid for with new revenues from a new regional cap-and-trade program on motor vehicle fuels – the timeline for which has also been delayed by the pandemic.

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