Finance crisis looms for Massachusetts transportation

Massachusetts report reveals necessity of $20 billion over the next 20 years in funding above that now available just to maintain and repair existing transportation system

News AASHTO Journal April 06, 2007
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Massachusetts' several transportation agencies will require nearly $20 billion over the next 20 years in funding over and above that now available, just to maintain and repair the existing system, a report by the state's Transportation Finance Commission revealed last week.

Cost-cutting or revenue-raising are the only ways to avoid a crisis one member of the commission that authored the report deemed "shocking," the Boston Globe reported. The bipartisan panel said such measures as increasing the state's gasoline tax, creating more toll roads, or joining with private enterprise to build new projects must be weighed, lest the state economy be harmed.

The need, furthermore, is so immediate that a toll increase of 25% slated to take effect on the Massachusetts Turnpike next January might have to take a larger bite and start later this year, the Globe reported. Even with more money taken in sooner, such a toll boost will only cover the Turnpike Authority's debt payments and will not cover costs of building, maintenance or operations.

Massachusetts last saw a gasoline-tax increase in 1990, which lifted the levy to 21 cents per gal.

Earlier estimates placed the commonwealth's potential transportation shortfall at $9.5 billion to $15.7 billion, the newspaper reported.

"We are really in a situation that I can call . . . shocking," said Michael J. Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the commission established by the Massachusetts Legislature two years ago. "We do have a crisis here," Widmer said.

The Transportation Finance Commission, which wrote the report, also said that a state pledge to eliminate tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike by 2017 should be reconsidered.

The report said every state transportation agency is running a deficit and resorting to short-term fixes, despite long-term financial problems. Only the Tobin Bridge, run by the Massachusetts Port Authority, is profitable.

Following the release of the report, a spokesman for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen declined to say whether the administration would support toll or gasoline tax increases.

In May or June, commission members plan to issue specific recommendations on how make up the shortfall. A legislative hearing is planned for as early as this week, and a public hearing is scheduled for April 30.

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