Saturday, October 18, 2008

Improving transportation in Massachusetts

First of all: I live here. I really like it here. I make a good living. And I don't enjoy paying taxes that much.

OK. Now that that's out of the way, I think it's past due time to raise our taxes here. Which one, you ask? Well, our transportation infrastructure is falling apart. And tolls are high on our roads with (the Mass. Pike including the harbor tunnels and the Tobin Bridge) further increases scheduled. This combination isn't good. Also, the current toll structure is unfair as heck - cars traveling between east-west pay a distance-based toll (the Turnpike), and people traveling from my North Shore pay tolls on the Tobin Bridge and to use the harbor tunnels. However, the entire southeast portion of the state doesn't deal with tolls, nor do people in the northwest suburbs. All of I-93 is toll-free. Yet those people are heavy road users, too - the Big Dig took I-93 and put it underground, and the biggest project over the last 10 years or so as the Dig wound down was the widening of Route 3 to New Hampshire. We've also been rebuilding the I-95/128 sections around Canton and Westwood for a long time. These are expensive projects, and yet those road users pay nothing.

My solution? Well, the gas tax here has been fixed at approximately 21 cents per gallon since 1991. One of the lower gas taxes in the US. In 2006 (the last year for which I have data), that resulted in $674.6 million in revenue. The Turnpike Authority generated about $257 million in the same year from tolls (they also got money from leasing rights-of-way and their concessions). I couldn't find toll data from Massport for the Tobin Bridge, but I'd assume it's well under half of the total Pike toll revenue. Let's say $75 million just for giggles (probably high).

That gives us about $350 million total being brought in by tolls statewide.

Now for the science...

My solution: raise the gas tax by at least 20¢. 25¢ would be OK as well. That doubles the revenue in total to somewhere in the $1.35 billion range - about $300 million more than a high estimate of total toll revenue. Now here's where the good part comes. In the legislation enabling the tax hike, after a 6-month window all tolls would be eliminated. Future increases in gas taxes would be automatic and indexed to inflation - and all the revenue from this would be dedicated to highway maintenance and transportation (the MBTA and regional bus services).

So you will have more money available to dedicate to highway and bridge maintenance for starters. You can also divert some money to the MBTA to expand and improve service. The six-month crossover produces a temporary bump in revenue beyond that - which can go to fund some of the more pressing infrastructure needs in the state.

Another advantage of the gas tax is that it's a true user tax. The more gas you use, the higher the taxes you pay. And the reason you'd be using more gas is either you drive a lot (which increases wear on the roads) or you have a very inefficient vehicle (increasing wear on the environment). A higher tax is an incentive to use less of the taxed item. In this case, gas.

One other point - even with double the gas tax our gas prices would be lower than many other states. Connecticut prices are routinely around 30¢ more than Massachusetts prices. Maine is similar much of the time. By comparative standards, this is a pain-free way to deal with our infrastructure issues.

I'm going to start pushing hard to try and get this done on a legislative level. Who knows if I'll have any luck, but I do know folks to at least get it on someone's agenda.

And it would affect me - I pay the gas bill for all my employees. But I still think it's a fairer way to fund our transportation systems.