MA: Gas-Tax Hike May Not Be Answer to Commuter-Rail Crisis

Feb. 2, 2012
Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said yesterday he would be "shocked" if a proposal to slash commuter-rail service on nights and weekends was adopted in full this year.

BOSTON -- Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said yesterday he would be "shocked" if a proposal to slash commuter-rail service on nights and weekends was adopted in full this year.

But any plan to keep the trains running is unlikely to include an increase in the gas tax, despite Boston Mayor Tom Menino recently endorsing the tax as an alternative to fare hikes and service cuts.

Reduced commuter-rail service is part of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's latest plan to close a projected $161 million budget gap.

"What I'm beginning to hear from customers, an emerging theme, if there was a choice between the two, people would rather pay a little more than see cuts in service," said Davey. "We heard that in Salem. We heard that out of Worcester."

Transportation officials will hold a public hearing to discuss service cuts and fee hikes at Lowell City Hall on Monday from 5-7 p.m.

The MBTA has proposed raising its fares by an average of 35 percent to 43 percent. The agency also wants to cut bus routes, eliminate ferry services, and hike discounted fares for students, the elderly and the disabled.

In a letter to Davey, Menino said he wants to work with Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders to find an alternative to the MBTA's proposals, such as raising the gas tax. Menino said service cuts and fare hikes are a "one-year Band-Aid" that will hurt poor commuters.

"We are in desperate need of a dedicated revenue source and immediate action is needed to identify sustainable funding for the MBTA," wrote Menino.

There appears to be little political will on Beacon Hill to find an alternative to the fare hikes and service cuts. Patrick said last week he no longer sees the gas tax as a long-term solution to the state's transportation woes.

Patrick sought a 19-cent increase in the gas tax during his first term as governor, but the Legislature rejected it.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said yesterday the MBTA needs additional revenue to solve its budget problems, but she too said increasing the state's gasoline tax is not the best solution.

"I think everyone knows there has to be a fix on the transportation funding," said Murray. "Whether or not it's a gas tax, that's a whole different discussion for a different subject matter on a different day."

Murray said her opposition to raising the tax is due to the fact that gasoline prices are forecast to be between $4 and $5 per gallon this summer. Still, Murray said the state needs to come up with "a fix" on transportation funding.

The MBTA is required to pass a balanced budget by April 15. Davey said he hopes his agency does not find itself in the same position next year.

"It's clear that we need a long-term solution, because next year the MBTA has a projected budget deficit of $40 million," said Davey. "The more one-term revenues we do this year, we produce a bigger budget deficit next year."

Davey added that under the MBTA's current service and fee proposals, public transportation use is expected to decrease 8 percent to 17 percent

"If we're not subsidizing and helping the public transportation system, congestion will go up, traffic will go up, there will be more people in their cars," he said.

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Photo courtesy of MassDOT.
In February of this year, MBTA debuted a new diesel-electric locomotive, one of two trains purchased from the Utah Transit Authority, and marks the first time in more than two decades that new locomotives will join the MBTA’s commuter rail fleet.