By State Senator Jamie Eldridge
As the Legislature considers how to reform our state’s transportation system, it’s important to remember the real question that we, elected officials and citizens alike, must answer. How do we ensure the safety of our roads and bridges, build and maintain an accessible, reliable public transportation system, and reduce waste and increase accountability in our transportation infrastructure? In answering this question, we should not be mired in the past, but rather committed to improving the present, and dedicated to leaving a legacy that will shape the state’s environment, economy, and public safety.
Years of neglect, taking the easy way out, and a less than honest approach with the public have led us to the transportation crisis that we currently face. Government after government pushed the problem off for someone else to deal with — and now we must come to terms with the fact that that “someone elseâ€ is us. It won’t be easy, but the consequences of inaction are high.
Today, our roads and bridges across the Commonwealth are crumbling, some to the point of being dangerous. Locally, the quality of service on the Fitchburg and Worcester lines is severely lacking, and our towns and cities need more Chapter 90 funding to maintain town roads.
As we consider what a modern transportation system would look like, we also need to consider greater support and expansion of the Regional Transit Authorities, including the Metrowest RTA bus line, so that more people in our local communities can have access to a reliable public transit system. We should also think about ways to improve bicycle and pedestrian paths, including developing rail trails such as the Assabet River Rail Trail and the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.
However, we also need to look for ways to reduce waste, redundancies and inefficiencies in the system to keep costs downs. Both Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray have proposed solid plans to condense the transportation bureaucracy into one streamlined organization, establish new standards for efficiency and accountability, align the T pension system with the state pension system, and otherwise modernize our system — and the Legislature will be examining both plans carefully in the coming weeks.
A comprehensive transportation reform plan will also include ways to make our system more environmentally sustainable, by promoting the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles in transit and private use, and providing more viable alternatives to driving.
Finally, I strongly believe a transportation reform plan will need to look at new ways of raising revenue to fund our priorities. Even with much-needed reforms to our system, we simply do not have the money necessary to meet our transportation needs.
Revenue is needed to fund our regional transportation systems, reduce the underlying debt pulling down our transportation agencies, renew investment in maintenance and day-to-day operations, and increase investments in our commuter rail.
The debate most recently has focused on raising tolls on the Masspike versus raising the gas tax. I have publicly supported a gas tax over raising tolls because it is the most equitable way to share the cost of maintaining our transportation system. No one region or group of commuters should be forced to shoulder the burden for the transportation needs of the entire state.
The gas tax has not been increased since 1991, yet since then our transportation needs have grown, and too many of our roads, bridges and public transit systems are woefully inadequate. Governor Patrick’s proposal to raise the gas tax by 19 cents a gallon, which I support, would cost the average Massachusetts driver just $8 a month. To put this into context, if a person drives 20,000 miles a year in a car that averages 20 miles to the gallon, that person would pay an extra $190 per year.
I’ve heard from many constituents on both sides of this issue, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to speak with people about their concerns. I know that families everywhere are feeling the pinch, and that it is a difficult time to ask people to pay more for gasoline. But because the state’s transportation system is in crisis due to past mistakes, bold action is needed. Investing in and reforming our transportation system now is critical to ensuring public safety and improving our state’s economy; by making these changes today, we will be far better off tomorrow.