Boston Herald: Pay for current transit system first

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Boston Herald: Pay for current transit system first

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Charles Chieppo and Jim Stergios

We need new revenue to maintain Massachusetts’ crumbling transportation system. But Gov. Deval Patrick’s new blueprint gives the same old interest groups the tools to repeat the mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place.

Patrick rightly says he “started from the perspective of what we need to have a 21st century economy.” In some ways, the plan achieves that goal. It dramatically reduces the ?MBTA’s $3 billion maintenance backlog and the overall transportation funding identified by a state commission. But a 21st century economy can be supported for half the $1 billion in annual new spending included in the blueprint.

Our transportation problems stem in part from 14 new transit projects built as part of an agreement to let the Big Dig go forward more than 20 years ago. The expansion binge — pushed by many of the same groups lining up behind the governor’s plan — came without a funding source.

The results are predictable. Just as the Big Dig drained money from other state road projects, new transit lines diverted funds from maintenance to expansion. Today, nearly half the MBTA’s $8.6 billion debt can be traced to building, operating and maintaining those projects. So can much of the T’s $3 billion maintenance backlog.

Given that history, any new plan must devote at least 90 percent of new transportation revenue to existing assets until maintenance backlogs are eliminated.

While noting that the governor’s plan “will not allow us to build many worthy projects,” the report calls for a wish list that includes South Coast commuter rail, passenger rail from Boston to both Springfield and Cape Cod, and even between the Berkshires and New York City.

Compounding past mistakes, the report includes no mention of what these projects will cost to operate and maintain over their lifetime, instead focusing only on construction costs over the next decade.

The governor includes a laundry list of taxes and fees to pay for new investments. Some — like a measured gas tax increase that does not put Massachusetts stations at a disadvantage, having motorists who drive during rush hour pay more, and electronic tolling — are sensible.

Others — like increasing the sales, income or payroll taxes — are highly regressive and stray from the goal of having those who benefit most from the system pay for it.

Rollout of the governor’s plan was preceded by a supportive report from the Boston Foundation and a business group using “multipliers” in a way that would make even convention center feasibility studies proud. Every dollar of transportation investment immediately yields $2.04 in economic activity — just think how great things would be if the state spent 10 times more.

Discussion of such multipliers somehow omits the negative multipliers of raising taxes and fees, especially in a fragile economy and when much of the state still faces high unemployment.

A 21st century transportation system doesn’t require asking taxpayers to pay for an array of low-use, politically expedient expansions while picking up the tab for a 20-year transit expansion binge. Instead, it requires investment in decidedly old-school concepts like properly maintaining what we have, so that residents can get where they need to go in a timely manner.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.