Gas Tax Isn’t a Simple Cure for Transit Ills

The trial balloons keep coming for some sort of transportation revenue. There was Lt. Gov. Murray’s August trial balloon for a gas-tax increase. Then public discussions about needing four times more funding to maintain the Big Dig tunnels, and Gov. Patrick’s trip to attend President Obama’s press conference on federal transportation legislation. Make no mistake about it, there will be a push to raise transportation revenues, most likely through the gas tax, in the coming year.
But the administration faces a real uphill battle to get it passed.
Over the past two years, the Commonwealth massively restructured the state’s transportation agencies. A new entity, MassDOT, now oversees most major pieces of transportation infrastructure, including those formerly held by the now-dissolved Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. The 2009 law included additional reforms that held the promise of increased efficiency and lower costs.
The outcome of the reforms? We don’t know.
MassDOT was to report consistently on key performance measures. But they have not provided enough in terms of data content or informing the public. The department has done a far better job of communicating tactical successes — innovative projects and reform-related events. But these press events don’t say anything about progress on many key measures — measures that matter to the public.
Without this strategic communication, MassDOT will rightly struggle to make the public case that it is managing our assets and our money more wisely than in the past. For a public with Big Dig cost overruns and MBTA service failures lodged firmly in our collective psyche, changing a negative perception of transportation spending and management is a herculean task, made more challenging without a consistent method of communicating performance and accountability. And reports over the summer that senior engineers at MassDOT purposely avoided tracking maintenance issues do not help.
Any tax-increase proposal must be akin to a social contract — you taxpayers pay this, and we, the government, will give you value in return. Without refocusing the transportation agency on consumer-centered metrics, why would the public think that an increase in the gas tax will lead to service improvements?
A two-way request for more tax dollars paired with specific performance benchmarks — e.g. reduced congestion, increased on-time performance, and fewer structurally deficient bridges — might get us to that elusive destination called compromise, while a one-way offer to siphon more tax revenue into a black hole will land squarely in the breakdown lane.
A two-way contract with the public would change MassDOT’s focus from a strong emphasis on expansion to addressing long-term neglect of maintenance. Expansion projects that do not significantly address ‘customer-service’ issues and, in fact, further burden the MBTA with a crippling debt load, such as the multi-billion-dollar South Coast Rail project, would no longer be a priority.
Instead, the agency would focus on meeting the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual unfunded maintenance needs outlined in the state’s transportation capital plan. Subway riders and highway commuters know well what the neglect of maintenance means — delay, congestion, and aggravation.
The days of expanding the system without the finances to pay for or even operate it are gone. As Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff stated in Boston last year, “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?’’
If an increase in the gas tax means funding expansions that leave us in precisely the same situation 10 years from now, but with a larger portfolio of assets, you can forget about it. If it prioritizes maintenance and improves our current system’s operations, sustainability, and efficiency, then the politics might work.
That’s a tall order for the governor. Reshaping perceptions and the politics of transportation means lessening the emphasis on politically expedient (but financially disastrous) expansions. It means communicating to the public consumer-based goals and drilling them into agencies used to very different marching orders.
There’s no doubt that our transportation system is underfunded. But asking for more money to make the problem bigger is not the answer.

Steve Poftak is director of research at the Pioneer Institute.

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