Transportation reports still don't answer money questions
By BOB SALSBERG
Sep. 30, 2017
BOSTON (AP) — If words were cash, Massachusetts might have the most well-funded transportation system around.
The past week brought two new reports chronicling the state's aging infrastructure and continuing difficulties residents face getting from point A to point B, whether by car, bus, train or other means.
The reports, one from the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and another issued by Senate leaders, add to a veritable library of worthy literature over the past decade, yet leave unanswered the recurring question of how the state should pay for the world-class transportation network it seeks.
Past missives include the 2007 report of the independent Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission that starkly warned that the transportation system had been neglected for years and "will fail if we do not take prompt and decisive action."
Two years later, a review of the MBTA by a special panel headed by prominent business leader David D'Alessandro started with these ominous words: "The outlook is bleak."
That report concluded "forward funding," a well-intentioned but poorly implemented attempt to make the T self-sufficient and erase chronic deficits, had only produced more operating deficits and a dangerous debt crisis for the transit system.
A task force created by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker after disastrous breakdowns during the harsh winter of 2015 was, if anything, more pessimistic, arguing the T was in "severe financial distress," ineffectively managed and lacking any viable plan to maintain its decaying assets.
Most agree these reports and others have done more than gather dust. The 2007 report prompted a consolidation of the state's disparate transportation agencies under MassDOT. The 2015 study led to creation of a fiscal control board that has generally been credited with some shoring up of the MBTA's finances and operations.
As always, however, revenue remains at the core of the transportation debate. Many in government believe higher taxes are needed. Others feel the current funding just needs to be spent more efficiently.
The most recent reports add new layers to the conversation. They note the serious challenges posed for transportation planners by climate change, along with technology and lifestyle changes.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation strongly suggests that just throwing money at problems isn't enough.
While the state, in the 10 years since the finance commission's report, has doubled capital expenditures for transportation, "asset conditions of state and local roads and bridges remain problematic despite capital spending amounting to billions of dollars more than the (commission) projected would be available," the report stated.
The Senate document reflects meetings held with some 700 state residents and an online survey. It found an overwhelming percentage of people both dissatisfied with the state's overall transportation system and willing to pay more to make it better.
"Massachusetts does not currently have a transportation infrastructure adequate to support its economy, or economic growth over the long haul," says an echo of gloomy language from the many prior reports.
The Senate report offers a vision of what residents hope for from transportation planners, and a set of regional priorities. It recommends new revenues be identified to finance these goals. No specific revenue plan is offered, though some Democratic leaders have embraced a likely 2018 ballot question that proposes a surtax on the state's highest earners.
The foundation calls for creating a new independent commission to conduct an expansive review of how the state finances transportation and assess the reliability of current revenues.
Baker was among those seeming to embrace the idea of an independent commission, which may or may not resolve the financing puzzle but would, presumably, publish yet another report for the growing annals of state transportation research.