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Patrick explains where gas tax will go

Date: 3/10/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- If Massachusetts voters have only heard Gov. Deval Patrick speak about an increase to the gas tax, rather than the rest of his transportation plan, then the hearing on Wednesday conducted by the Joint Committee on Transportation gave the governor the chance to emphasize his complete vision.

That vision includes the creation of a consolidated and simplified Executive Office of Transportation to oversee the Commonwealth's transportation infrastructure. Patrick would abolish the Turnpike Authority, the Aeronautics Commission and the Outdoor Advertising Board. These moves would eliminate 300 current jobs.

All Turnpike and Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) employees would be moved to the same health plan as other state employees, which would create savings. MBTA employees would have their pension system aligned to the state's, preventing people from working 23 years and collecting a pension earlier than other state employees.

A new Transportation Fund would be created to pay down the Big Dig debt and other reforms would be put in place.

According to Patrick, the independent Transportation Finance Commission "indicated these reforms would save $2 to $3 billion over the next 20 years." Those savings are not enough to pay for the maintenance on the state's roads, rails and bridges, though.

The auditorium at Scibelli Hall at Springfield Technical Community College was standing room only for the hearing and clearly contained voters loyal to what Patrick is trying to do and those who oppose the hike in the tax -- the first one since 1991.

Patrick likened the additional cost for most drivers as being the same as a cup of coffee a week or $8 a month. He broke down where each of the 19 cents he seeks as a tax raise would go:

• Four cents to roll back toll increases on the turnpike and tunnels that are proposed to take effect this spring.

• Six cents to ensure that there will be no cuts to existing MBTA and commuter rail services and no fare increase for at least two or three years;

• Six cents to address unmet road, rail and bus needs outside of greater Boston, including funding for the regional transit authorities such as the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority;

• Two cents to end the practice of paying salaries and benefits of transportation personnel with debt;

• And one cent for innovations to prepare for the decline in gas tax revenues as fuel efficiency increases.

Patrick would also tie the gas tax into the Consumer Price Index so future requests for increases would be unnecessary.

While the governor admitted the state's gas tax would be one of the highest in the nation with a 19-cent increase he added the state has "one of the highest levels of accumulated neglect" in its transportation infrastructure.

Patrick would have "regional equity" in how the new transportation money is distributed by making sure three-quarters of what is raised in a region is returned there.

Rep. Joseph Wagner, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, praised the governor for coming before them and said, "Regional equity is so important to everyone in the Commonwealth."

Pledging to work with the governor, Wagner said, "We are going to find a way to get everything done that needs to be done here."

Wagner had told this reporter a week before the hearing that the Legislature has "no appetite" for a 19-cent tax hike.

Sen. Steven Baddour, the other co-chair, noted the governor's bill has many similarities to a transportation reform bill that has been filed in the Senate. Baddour stressed the need for "reform before revenue" and added, "We can't put money into a broken system."

The 19-cent figure isn't written in stone as Patrick explained in a quick meeting with the press after his presentation. He said the 19 cents was lower than original estimates.

Patrick, though, refused to speculate about what number he would accept through the negotiations that are bound to follow the introduction of his bill with members of the House and Senate.

What the governor doesn't want to do is to settle on an amount that prevents his concept of "regional equity" or assuring that each area of the state receives back three-quarters of the tax money in funding for transportation.

"I think what we should take away from this hearing and from its chairs, as we have from the leadership, is a willingness to work together to try to do what is right for the whole Commonwealth," Patrick said.

"I hate having to do this. I wish my predecessor had dealt with these issues for the last 16 years so I wouldn't have to; I wish 18 years ago, when the gas tax was last raised, they had pegged it to inflation [so] we wouldn t have this issue right now. But we have billions of dollars of accumulated neglect," Patrick said.