Push For Transportation Funding In Massachusetts Includes Local Tax Option

Jul 18, 2018

There’s a last-minute push on Beacon Hill to allow local communities in Massachusetts to vote on new regional taxes to pay for their own transportation projects, an option available in most other states.

The legislation is before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, with no vote scheduled and only days to go before the end of formal sessions. Legislation has also not moved in the House.

Kevin Thompson is Director of Transportation for America. He says most states allow local ballot measures to secure funding for transportation projects. But Massachusetts is not one of them.

Kevin Thompson, Transportation for America: Forty-one other states have this tool, available to local communities within those 41 states, to be able to leverage their own funding against federal or state funding to invest in transportation projects.

The projects run the [gamut]. They are everything from “complete streets,” to new bicycle lanes, or trails, or light rail systems or bus rapid transit systems, etc. But the key here is that local communities are taking charge of their own solutions for their mobility challenges, and this vehicle allows them to do that.

The urgency for a place like Massachusetts is that the playing field, or the rules of engagement for federal funding, are really changing.

A view underneath I-91 in Springfield, Massachusetts, in July 2018.
Credit Heather Brandon / NEPR
Manhan Rail Trail construction in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 2010.
Credit MassDOT / Public domain

Carrie Healy, NEPR: This approach has appeared to succeed in places across the country. Can you give me a specific example of a way this kind of tax has work well?

On the east coast, there would be the Atlanta example. Atlanta is a place that many people now sort of equate with being sort of like Los Angeles, in terms of their traffic congestion, and their mobility challenges.

They have a passed a series of taxes, after a big defeat of a region-wide ballot initiative in 2012. They’ve come back and passed a number of taxes to expand the MARTA system. So they have a special sales tax that's going to generate about $2.5 billion to make major capital upgrades.

The MARTA transportation system in Atlanta, Georgia, shown here in November 2016.
Credit Paul Sableman / Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/pasa

You've said that Massachusetts is one of nine states who currently prevent local governments from raising tax money to pay for transportation. Is there a risk that taxes like this one create a larger divide between wealthy and poor parts of a state in which residents can't afford the new taxes?

Yeah, and that's a big concern for us. As the federal government sort of pivots to a new paradigm for funding transportation projects, the risk you run is that it creates a system of “haves” and “have-nots.”

There will be communities that either have the wherewithal to tax themselves in that way, or they have the political will to do that. And then there are communities -- whether they have the financial means to actually do it -- may lack the political will to do it. And you will have more of a patchwork of transportation projects across the country. So that's the downside to it.

A 2012 public meeting on transportation in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Credit MassDOT / Public domain

As with education, it seems like transportation funding is also hard-won. Do you see strong pushback to transportation projects at the state level?

Massachusetts is in a distinct minority, in the sense that the state spends quite a bit of money on mass transit and public transportation. Most states don't. Most states are more highway-centric, and their funding.

A lot of states are sort of in a position of trying to catch up to that, and I think that was part of the reason that you saw this -- the popularity of this vehicle sort of emerge over time. That was something states just weren't doing. Massachusetts has been doing that. And, you know, good for the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project when it was under construction in Boston, shown in August 2017.
Credit MassDOT / Public domain

But in order to remain competitive for federal dollars -- because you know, every state needs a federal partner to share the cost – in order to get that money, Massachusetts is going to have to have to put up more state and local funding to receive those federal dollars, and this is a vehicle that will help them do that.  

Your other options are looking at statewide taxes, and I think that that is a harder sell, probably, in the legislature, than it would be for distinct towns, or a group of towns in a region, to sort of band together and vote a tax increase for themselves.

Heather Brandon contributed to this report.