A payroll tax for transportation purposes?
A coalition of unions and social justice activists is pushing for a transit-orientated payroll tax as one of a number of solutions that could put a dent in the state’s transportation financing problems. Beacon Hill lawmakers and the Patrick administration are expected to tackle the financing issues next year.
The coalition, which includes the Greater Boston Labor Council, the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, and several transit unions, released a 30-page report on Tuesday that outlines the tax proposal and other ways the state can relieve the MBTA’s heavy debt burden.
The payroll tax would provide $190 million in annual revenue through employers paying 0.75 percent of each worker’s earnings over $100,000, according to the report, which also notes that 90 percent of workers would be exempted, and the tax would largely affect the financial, medical, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical industries.
Nine percent of Bay State workers use public transit, the report says, citing US Census figures.
The MBTA would receive $130 million of the annual tax take, covering annual costs of paying off the Big Dig debt. The other $60 million would be funneled to the regional transit authorities.
“We know the payroll tax is controversial,” said Rich Rogers, chair of Community Labor United and executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. “But somebody has to be thinking outside the box.” He acknowledged that the coalition expects “significant pushback” from the business lobby.
The coalition’s report also calls for the Massachusetts Port Authority, also known as Massport, to take on some of the debt the MBTA acquired from the Big Dig project. Massport, which oversees Logan Airport and rakes in revenues from its ownership of rental and parking revenues in South Boston, has benefited from the Big Dig and should “share in the responsibility of taking on some of the T’s Big Dig debt,” the report says.
State Rep. Antonio Cabral, who represents New Bedford, attended the press conference, and pressed for a “green fee,” which could be tacked on when people renew their licenses.
Gov. Deval Patrick has increasingly talked of needing new revenues to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements. While he once proposed increasing the state’s gas tax, his comments to reporters indicate he has little appetite for another run at it, particularly since the Legislature rejected the proposal.
The report notes that the Patrick administration is “laying the foundation” to expand commuter rail service. The Fairmount Line is one example, with the addition of four new stations running through Mattapan and Dorchester and offering workers access to South Station in downtown Boston.
But local residents have also been hit with fare hikes as the MBTA struggles with its debt. “First, if transit authorities push their fare levels to the limit, riders who need public transit will have to forgo other needs in order to pay such fares or limit their access to community opportunities and resources by cutting needed trips,” the report says. “Second, discretionary riders may choose other forms of transportation.”
The report also recommends setting up a “community infrastructure bank,” a public lending organization financed by the state. “An investment in public transit and the infrastructure that supports it – and the residents using it – will grow our state economy, slash our greenhouse gas emissions, and increase access to work, educational, civic, and social opportunities across race, class, region,” the report asserts.