To Fix Roads, the Cost May Be Ours

May 16, 2019 GMT

With Gov. Charlie Baker banking on traditional borrowing to meet the state’s transportation infrastructure needs, one prominent House member sees a higher gas tax as a possible revenue option.

Baker said Monday that he plans to file a major transportation borrowing bill in the next 30 to 60 days that will contain his infrastructure priorities for the next five years. Borrowing for desperately needed transportation upgrades, rather than an omnibus transportation financing bill, follows a longstanding practice that usually does not involve new revenues - taxes.

It most recently occurred in 2014, when the Legislature, under Gov. Deval Patrick, passed a five-year, $12.7 billion transportation borrowing bill.


This comes at the same time MBTA officials aired their five-year, $8 billion capital spending plan, which the governor called “the largest five-year spend in the history of the T by a mile.”

But some legislative leaders are open to revenue-based spending on transportation needs.

That’s reflected in the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s backing last week of a constitutional amendment that would impose 4 percent surtax on that portion of household incomes above $1 million per year.

The measure, which failed to pass State Judicial Court muster last year when presented as a referendum, expects to raise $2 billion a year for education and transportation.

However, since it requires amending the state Constitution — a time-consuming process — no revenue would be realized until at least 2023.

Which brings us back to the gas tax.

Transportation Committee Co-Chairman William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, seems to be laying the groundwork for another drive to use gasoline-tax increases as one of many revenue options lawmakers will weigh later in the legislative session.

While a 2014 ballot measure overturned automatically tying annual gas tax increases to inflation, Strauss obviously believes it’s worth trying to push it through the Legislature on a piecemeal basis, since every penny increase would generate an additional $35 million to $40 million in taxes.

Obviously, nobody wants to pay more for gas, especially through increased taxes. However, it was lawmakers’ lack of appetite for tackling difficult issues — which automatic annual revenue increases circumvent — that was the prime motivator for the referendum.

Compared to the rest of New England, the Massachusetts gas tax isn’t all that onerous. At 24 cents per gallon, it’s virtually tied with New Hampshire (23.8) at the low end -- far better than Connecticut (43.5) and less than 30 other states.


Whether packaged with other revenue enhancers or offered as a stand-alone measure, it’s at least worth considering, as are tariffs on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

Either way, taxpayers will be on the hook, either for borrowing costs or higher gas taxes and fares.

Though the governor and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will be making a bipartisan pitch in Washington this week in support of the $2 trillion, federal transportation infrastructure bill, the commonwealth’s best bet for any resources will likely come from within its border.

It’s just a matter of how we pay for it.