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Transportation reform predicted to save millions

Date: 6/30/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The citizens of the Commonwealth will save tens of millions of dollars from the transportation reforms signed into law Friday morning by Gov. Deval Patrick, but they and Patrick will have a political price to pay -- an increased sales tax.

"They kept their end of the bargain and I'll keep my end of the bargain," Patrick said after he signed the measure.

Patrick had agreed to support the fiscal year 2010 budget, which increased the sales tax to 6.25 percent if the Legislature could pass three reform bills on ethics, pensions and transportation. Patrick would have rather raised the gas tax instead of the sales tax.

When asked if the gas tax hike was dead, Patrick responded, "Not from my perspective."

He said the new budget "will get us through one fiscal year, but we need a dedicated mechanism to fund transportation."

According to information supplied at the event, the state's transportation system "faces an estimated $15 to $19 billion funding gap in the next 20 years to maintain the current network of roads, bridges and transit for safe, reliable service."

The bill is designed to "help put an end to the Big Dig culture of deception, patronage and waste by eliminating the Turnpike Authority, streamlining numerous overlapping transportation agencies, [and] ending unreasonable perks at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority," according to the press release.

Patrick described the former system as a series of "bureaucratic knots" and said the new legislation offers "sweeping changes." He credited the passage of the bill to the cooperation between his office and House and Senate leaders.

The co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, State Rep. Joseph Wagner, said the governor had "thrown down the gauntlet."

"We picked it up and moved it down the road," he added.

Wagner called the bill "historic reform."

He attributed the status of transportation issues -- "not one of the more sexy areas" -- as the reason reforms have taken so long to pass.

"They tend not to be front burner issues," he said.

He credited the creation and subsequent work of the Transportation Finance Commission, created in 2004, as providing the impetus for reform legislature. He explained the commission identified both great need for improving the state transportation infrastructure and funding gaps.

"They put it on the front burner," he said.

Referring to the future, when funding for improvements must be found, Wagner said, "It's tough to convince the public to reach into its pocket and pay more if they think the system is broken."