Lawmakers weigh gas tax proposal

Amid all the hubbub in the Commonwealth over Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed 19-cent hike in the gas tax - with some business organizations calling for a 25-cent raise, state senators calling for reforms first, revenue later, and other legislators calling for less, less, less - local transit advocates are calling for more, more, more for the state's public transportation. Meanwhile, most local lawmakers are leaning toward a smaller tax increase.

"Six cents for the T is not going to cover everything the T needs," said Bob Terrell of On The Move. "It will probably leave the maintenance backlog untouched. The automobile has been subsidized for 80 or 90 years now. The reason public transportation has always struggled is a lack of resources. It's time to redress the imbalance."

As it stands, Patrick's 19-cent proposal gives four cents to the Turnpike Authority to roll back toll increases that have proven unpopular, six cents to the T, and three cents to rail projects outside of Boston. The plan would also grant two cents to transportation employees currently being paid with borrowed money, and 1.5 cents each for regional roads and regional transportation authorities. The last penny goes to "innovative gas and toll solutions."

Terrell said OTM is going to make a push to dedicate 13 cents of any new gas tax to the T, an idea that any dedicated transit rider might relish for the improvement and expansion to services it might bring, but drivers less so.

Paul Regan, chair of the MBTA's advisory board, agreed that six cents was on the low side for dealing with the Central Artery debt the T has absorbed, the maintenance backlog, and low cash reserves, not to mention pent up public demand for expansion.

"The T hasn't melted down yet, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to," said Regan this week. "The fiscal year 2010 budget has a $165 million hole in it… A few cents more would really make a difference in terms of the impact on riders."

Among Dorchester's legislative delegation, not everyone is on the same train - yet.

Senators Jack Hart and Sonia Chang-Diaz are both keeping an eye on Senate President Teresa Murray, whom they say is calling for more information and cost-saving projections about reforms before any number is chosen for a raise in the tax.

"Before we ask the taxpayers to come up with more money, we need to make sure the agencies are doing anything they can to save money," said Sen. Hart. "I think the Governor's proposal at 19 cents goes too far. I think the Senate will be looking at the 8-, 9-, 10- or 12-cent range and maybe a smaller toll increase as well."

Asked specifically about the MBTA's needs, Hart said reforms are needed to address the disparity between fare revenues and the operating budget of the transit agency.

"The T should and always must be subsidized," he said. "The problem is they are hemorrhaging at this point."

At a recent Pope's Hill Neighborhood association meeting state Rep. Marty Walsh said the majority of the room supported the gas tax rather than higher tolls, and Chang-Diaz added that in her conversations with constituents, most supported the gas-tax as well. "It's definitely been more on the support side," she said.

Walsh said in his 'on the street' conversations with constituents however, he said there was "no love" for a hefty gas tax. He said he isn't ready to support one unless it also addresses the state's general fund, which is expected to have a significant budget deficit in FY 2010.

State Rep. Marie St. Fleur said she would need "more clarity" to make any decision, citing the need to assess the effect of the stimulus bill on the transportation infrastructure before calculating what the MBTA the Turnpike Authority and other agencies truly need to get out of their financial dire straits. Her main priority, she said, would be to ensure that a gas tax would bring new jobs.

"If we're going to take money for a gas tax, I was hoping we'd put people back to work and one way to do that is public works - roads, bridges…"

The only member of the Dot delegation who seemed to say anything close to 'a gas-tax might not be so bad' was state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, although Rep. Willie Mae Allen did not immediately return a call for comment.

"The thing we do have to take into consideration is how will this affect businesses, but I do think maintenance has been deferred so long that we're going to have to take the plunge," said Forry.