Ben Downing: Let's Get Transportation Moving

Apr 4, 2019

The transportation debate in Massachusetts has been locked in a battle of false choices for far too long. Failure to recognize this has left us a transportation system built in the 1970s, to serve the Massachusetts of the 80s, burdened by debt from the 90s, unable to help us grow in this century. Here is one proposal for moving forward.

Significant, dedicated new revenue is needed to clear out maintenance back logs and build a better transportation system for today and the future. Patching up yesterday’s infrastructure won’t help us meet the needs of today’s economy, let alone the future’s. And for the sake of our children and grandchildren we need to reduce the climate impact of our current and future transportation system.

To achieve these goals, we need larger investments and we need to raise the revenue for them more wisely.  New revenue should come in two major forms - regional and statewide. Regional revenue should build off of the ideas captured in Representative Madaro and Senator Lesser’s Regional Ballot Initiatives legislation, but go a few steps further. Mass INC and others have shown that taxpayers are far more likely to support taxes for transportation programs and projects in their community. Our system of taxation and governance should reflect that. Every community of the commonwealth should be grouped into one of several regional transportation districts. District commissioners should then be charged with putting to the voters a budget and financing plan for the local RTA, highway district and other transportation needs confined to the region. Once every three years that plan should be put to the voters for their approval or rejection. If approved, taxes and spending move forward, if rejected, the status quo holds. The plans would need to fall within a broad set of statewide guidelines to ensure they are in compliance with state goals, but otherwise, regions would have autonomy to meet their needs.

For projects of statewide or multi-region importance - such as regional rail - statewide revenue is needed. That revenue should come from dedicating an increase in the income tax, including capital gains/dividends and interest, to those projects and others that improve our transportation system. While not an ideal solution, the income tax is the most progressive of the broad, statewide taxes policy makers have at their disposal. Previous reductions to the income tax have disproportionately benefited the wealthy. A transportation system that drives our economy and helps combat climate change will require all to pay some, but should ask the most of those who have benefited from recent economic growth. Increasing the income tax does precisely that.  

Finally, the management reforms and attempts at innovation in the Patrick administration and the Baker administration must be carried forward. Our transportation system cannot expect to serve a 21st century Massachusetts with management practices from the 1970s. Proposals such as congestion pricing and smart tolling should be tested and deployed to reduce congestion.  Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) - like Lyft and Uber - along with other new business models should be integrated into the system as partners, but not allowed to simply profit from it.

Massachusetts is too smart, hardworking and innovative to continue to do the same thing for the next 20 years and expect different results. We can and should do better. The pathway there is clear: empower regions and voters, invest in statewide projects and infrastructure and continue to innovate in how we manage and administer the system. Our current debate won’t get us there, but this plan could.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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