Why a T gas tax doesn’t fly out West

February 17, 2012
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A gas tax hike is being pushed by most Jamaica Plain elected officials and many residents as a key fix for the MBTA’s budget woes. Rural and suburban legislators have become the villains of the piece, with local officials urging citizens to put pressure on them.

But some of those Western Mass. officials actually support a gas tax boost—as long as it directly benefits their own flimsy public transit service. A similar plan was suggested in a little-noticed think tank study last fall co-written by a JP resident.

The Gazette spoke with two officials in the Berkshires—state Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli—to get the other side of the gas tax story.

“If you come out to the Berkshires, we don’t have what I call legitimate public transit,” Pignatelli said of the limited bus service there. A gas tax boost would be a regressive burden on the poor and working-class people who must drive and “can’t buy the Prius” to keep gas costs down, he said.

Downing said it isn’t fair to greatly boost the MBTA fares—but also isn’t fair to boost the gas tax on Western residents “for something in Boston they don’t see any benefit from.”

“There’s absolutely a need for more revenue for our transportation”—both the MBTA and the lesser-known Regional Transit Authorities, Downing said. The political difference is only about “how you do it, not if you do it,” he said.

But Downing and Pignatelli both said a gas tax increase could work if most or all of the revenue is dedicated to funding public transit within the region where it was raised. Greater Bostonians could fund the MBTA, and regions like the Berkshires finally could see some transit improvements as well.

The same idea was proposed last fall in “Moving Forward with Funding,” a report by the think tank MassINC, which called it both fairer and the only politically feasible way to get MBTA gas tax funding. JP resident Benjamin Forman, one of the report’s authors, told the Gazette that it received only scant and sensationalized media coverage at the time, but now is drawing more serious political attention as the MBTA budget crisis unfolds.

Low-income rural residents face big transit challenges. Downing noted that of the 48 communities he represents, only 11 have regular public transit buses. They only run six days a week on very limited routes and stop service around 6 p.m. With state social services branch offices being closed, people sometimes have to travel 30 miles or more for things like unemployment filing—essentially a full work day by bus.

“To ask those people to pay more for a gas tax is difficult,” Downing said.

Those residents are already paying for the MBTA because one penny of the state sales tax is dedicated to it. And there is still resentment over how Boston’s Big Dig project sucked up state road money from the rest of the state.

Politically, that creates “anxiety and sometimes animosity” toward Boston, Pignatelli said. He described a general attitude in the Berkshires as, “We’ve already paid our fair share. Enough already. Tax your own people.”

Even if a localized gas tax boost is approved, that is only part of a “patchwork quilt” solution to the MBTA’s huge problems, Pignatelli said. He suggested restoring tolls on the Mass. Turnpike’s Western exits, which are little-used by locals, and called for serious discussions about MBTA employee benefit costs.

Downing noted that much of New York City’s public transit system is funded by a local payroll tax.

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