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Transportation Bill Closes Budget Gaps For Regional Transit Authorities

The  $500 million tax bill approved this week by the Massachusetts House to fund transportation should address the immediate financial needs of the state’s 14 regional transit authorities.  But advocates for public transportation say it is a regressive approach that does not meet the demand for more bus and train service. 

The transportation funding bill that passed the Massachusetts House and awaits a vote likely on Thursday in the state Senate will close gaps in the operating budgets of the transit authorities, and eliminate a longstanding practice of borrowing money to pay operating expenses.  It should avoid, at least for a couple of years, fare hikes and service cuts.

A majority of House members from districts served by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, the state’s second largest regional transit system, voted for it.  Democratic State Representative John Scibak of South Hadley called it a reasonable approach.

The bill approved by the House would increase the state subsidy to the PVTA by $1.5 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1st.  PVTA Administrator Mary MacInnes said that will cover the deficit that was projected in the preliminary budget approved last month by the PVTA Advisory Board.

The bill increases the state subsidy to the PVTA by $3.7 million in fiscal year 2015 and by approximately $600,000 the following year, according to MacInnes.  It also provides the money up front thus reducing  the borrowing costs that have been a  part of  regional transit authority budgets for years.

MacInnes said the House bill is not simply a bailout for the MBTA as some critics have claimed.

Governor Deval Patrick has threatened to veto the transportation financing plan supported by the Democratic legislative leadership.  Patrick wants to increase spending on transit and roads by $1 billion annually for the next ten years. He would accomplish this, and provide more money for education, by raising the state’s income tax rate and eliminating dozens of tax deductions.

The bill approved in the House raises the gasoline tax by 3 cents per gallon, increases the cigarette tax by $1 per pack, applies the state sales tax to custom computer software, and raises taxes on multi-state corporations and utilities.

Advocates for public transportation, who plan to lobby at the Statehouse today, say the transportation bill that will come up for debate in the state Senate tomorrow is a patchwork approach. John Bennett of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council said it will just maintain what the PVTA has right now.

The transportation finance bill working its way through the legislature also faces opposition from anti-tax groups and Republican legislators.  House Republicans claim the state can pay for transportation from the $800 million in revenue growth projected for the next fiscal year.  Republican State Senator Michael Knapik of Westfield said the administration first needs to address expensive scandals in the Department of Transitional Assistance and the state’s drug testing labs

The House- passed transportation bill also brings a change to the governance of regional transit authorities. It would require the appointment of a representative of organized labor, and an advocate for the disabled community to be voting members on transit authority governing boards.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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