A Smarter Look at the Bay State’s Costs

We aren’t in Taxachusetts anymore.

Think about the reasons young college graduates, working couples, or even retirees cite when they say they are leaving for North Carolina or Florida. The costs that are driving our workforce to other states and keeping new employers away are for housing, transportation, and energy — all of which are taking more money out of the family checkbook than other states.

Now that the debate about a tax rollback that would save most families only a few dollars a week is over, the new administration needs to work with the Legislature to find creative ways to control those big- ticket costs that even the anti-tax Pioneer Institute recently pegged as the leading cause of job and population loss.

House lots the size of football fields. Old farms converted to Anywhere USA subdivisions. New water pipes, utility lines, and roads flung farther afield while downtown infrastructure crumbles. The ever-expanding time and distance of commutes — these are things we can start to control, and when we do, costs will drop for all of us, and our tax dollars will be put to more efficient use.

Neighboring states have started to put price tags on ‘building anything anywhere.’ Maine spent $200 million on building new schools in the last two decades, even though the school population is declining — the children are just more dispersed. Rhode Island estimates it will spend $1.5 billion by 2020 on additional fire, police, utility, and road costs and lost urban tax revenue from haphazard growth.

While much attention in our state is focused on the brain drain due to high housing costs, a recent study by the Center for Housing Policy found that transportation actually eats up more of working families’ paychecks. Add to this a finding by Boston Consulting Group that after job availability, access to outdoor activities is the second- most important reason college graduates decide to stay or leave the state. Clearly, the next governor needs to encourage employers to locate in places where people already live, build affordable homes near public transportation, and preserve the parks, beaches, and forests that attract workers, as well as tourists, from around the nation.

To start working in earnest on the kind of reforms that will save us time and money in the next decade, the new governor and legislature need to:

  • Fund our crumbling transit systems. Let’s put jobs, schools, and shopping closer to homes and transit, adds seats to the T and commuter rail, and expand public transportation statewide to take some of the burden off our choked roads. Right now, we can’t even afford to fix what we have, so we need to consider a full menu of funding options. Proposing to cut tolls while we are raising T fares is exactly the wrong direction to take;
  • Enact zoning reforms and local aid incentives that remove impediments to affordable housing, encourage towns to recreate the traditional New England village, and protect land of ecological importance. Two-acre lot minimums are sending developers into cornfields. We need to reward towns that grow smart with funds they need to provide local services, not hamstring them into absorbing growth they can’t afford;
  • Invest $250 million more each year in public infrastructure. The state’s financial managers put a limit on how much new debt the state can take on and retain a good bond rating. Neutral experts believe the state can afford to borrow more to fix our deteriorated infrastructure.

The Patrick administration should build on the Romney administration’s attempt to coordinate investments and policy in transportation, housing, energy, environment, and economic development, ending the ‘silos’ of government that have led to contradictory planning, turf wars, and wasted tax dollars. The new governor and Legislature need to show real leadership in tacking the costs that have lightened our wallets for some time now.

Bold initiatives will cost money in the short term, but in the long term, families will stay and save money, and government will spend less.

Kristina Egan is director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.