By Stephen Miller | StreetsBlog.org | February 27, 2013
As New Yorkers wait to find out if Governor Cuomo is even thinking about finding someone to chair the MTA, his lack of attention to transit stands in stark contrast to another northeastern governor – one who in the past six months not only named a new transit head, but also released a plan to fund the state’s transportation system and made it a focal point of his State of the State address.
That governor is Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. First elected in 2006, Patrick is the first post-Big Dig governor, and while he’s had to deal with the project’s fallout, including massive debt, he’s also had the chance to chart a new course for transportation.
“He’s been a really great governor for transportation in general and transit in particular,” said Stephanie Pollack, an urban policy expert at Northeastern University. “He deserves a huge amount of credit for putting the issue on the table.”
In September, Patrick lobbied Beverly Scott, former head of Atlanta’s MARTA system, out of her planned retirement to lead the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a move that was widely lauded by advocates. But that’s only part of the story.
Patrick has reorganized and consolidated the state’s transportation agencies in an effort to improve accountability, and he has confronted the need for revenue to maintain and modernize the state’s transportation network.
All the borrowing to pay for the Big Dig, combined with the lack of sufficient dedicated revenue, had buried Massachusetts under a mountain of transportation-related debt. In 2012, 45 percent of the combined MassDOT and MBTA budgets were allotted to debt service. (While the MTA hasn’t reached this level of indebtedness, its debt load is growing at an alarming rate.)
The Massachusetts gas tax, eroded by inflation, was last adjusted in 1991. Sales tax receipts, a major MBTA revenue source since 2000, had failed to meet expectations. In addition, Turnpike tolls west of Route 128 are scheduled to be eliminated in 2017, blowing a $120 million annual hole in MassDOT’s budget forecasts.
In 2009, a recession-driven budget crisis forced the issue. Patrick proposed a 19-cent gas tax increase, with nearly one-third of the revenue dedicated to the MBTA. Legislators were not receptive to the idea, and opted instead for a sales tax increase to help fund the T.
As in New York, which implemented fare hikes and service cuts after failing to completely deal with the 2009 crisis, the Massachusetts funding problems were not solved with a quick fix. Following agency belt-tightening in 2011, in 2012, the MBTA closed a budget gap with the first fare hike approved under the Patrick administration, but still required additional state aid from the legislature.
“We can’t pull any more rabbits out of our hat,” Massachusetts transportation secretary Richard Davey said in March, and Patrick agreed that Massachusetts needed a long-term solution to increase its investment in transportation.
In January, MassDOT released a report outlining capital needs and new funding sources. (Notably absent on MassDOT’s to-do list: highway expansion.) The report proposed a menu of options to raise $1 billion annually, including increased gas, sales, payroll, or income taxes, assessing vehicle registration fees based on carbon emissions, a new vehicle miles traveled tax, and increases in tolls, fares, and fees.
“Everything that he’s been doing since he was elected has stabilized the T and laid the groundwork for this year’s legislative session,” Pollack said.
After having to take action on the MBTA’s 2009 and 2012 gaps, legislative leaders still greeted the report warmly. “We all agree something has to be done,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said. Two days later, Patrick used his State of the State address to outline his preference for an income tax increase.
This choice disappointed some advocates who wanted Patrick to press for funding sources more aligned with transportation goals, like a gas tax increase. Even so, Massachusetts remains a few steps ahead of New York, where Governor Cuomo has dodged the transportation funding question since 2009, pushing the burden to straphangers and eroding the MTA’s dedicated funding streams.
So far, Cuomo has failed to even acknowledge that the MTA has a structural budget problem. But with a smart MTA funding plan that eliminates the dysfunction of NYC’s road pricing system, Cuomo could leapfrog ahead of Patrick on transportation and infrastructure policy.