By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
We have to stop picking around the edges when it comes to funding Massachusetts’ transportation system. The Legislature has arrived at an $800 million compromise bill after Gov. Deval Patrick proposed $1.2 billion in transportation funding earlier this year, but the bill does not account for a potential loss in toll revenue that the state has already agreed upon. We are so close to achieving a victory for our residents and our economy. All we need to do is make sure that the state is budgeting based upon real dollars, and for the long term.
Turnpike tolls west of I-95 are slated for elimination in 2017. That would cost the Commonwealth an estimated $135 million each year in lost revenue. Because the Legislature’s bill currently does not account for that potential loss of real dollars that would fund bridge, road and transit repairs, Gov. Patrick sent the bill back with an amendment to supplement that loss by adding 3 to 5 cents a gallon to the gas tax if the tolls are indeed eliminated. This contingency plan would ensure that when it comes to transportation projects, Massachusetts will be able to pay its bills.
Our transportation infrastructure is not modernized. A 2007 state commission report estimated that Massachusetts needs $1 billion simply to maintain current transportation systems. We chronically underfund transportation across the state and then hear howls of protest when the T breaks down, or we hear on the news that the bridge that we cross every day on the way to work is alarmingly rated as “structurally deficient.” Gov. Patrick has taken steps to remedy this, such as signing into law the accelerated bridge program that committed $3 billion to repairing and replacing up to 300 bridges across Massachusetts, including 14 bridges on I-93 in Medford two summers ago in a historically fast project. We must follow the governor’s lead and take the long view, investing patiently and prudently to eliminate these problems that hinder our state’s economy.
Every year since 2002, the MBTA has refinanced and restructured its debt, borrowing year after year and still coming back asking for more taxpayer dollars—from riders and non-riders alike—seeking higher fares and threatening to slash service. The ‘forward funding’ plan that gives one penny out of every 5 cents in sales tax revenues to the MBTA cannot hope to abate rising costs in fuel or healthcare, never mind address the regular maintenance needed for a system that carries 1.3 million riders each weekday.
There were 495 structurally deficient bridges in the Commonwealth last year, according to a report by Transportation for America. That’s almost one out of every 10 bridges in Massachusetts, which has some of the oldest bridges in the nation. The average Massachusetts bridge is 57 years old, compared to the national average of 43. Eight structurally deficient bridges—the same classification of the Mississippi River bridge that collapsed in Minnesota in 2006—are located here in Somerville or on nearby routes into and out of the city.
Our legislators need to let cold, hard budgetary math guide their decision, based on real dollars and what we know today about what will happen tomorrow. If we don’t budget with a long term vision and account for the potential loss of toll revenues, after pitiless winters, cities and towns will face deteriorating roads that cost residents money when they blow out a tire in a pothole. Commuters will be stuck on a creaking, strained public transportation system that keeps them from getting to work on time, stymieing a waiting workforce that simply wants the opportunity to get to work and earn a living for their families and themselves. Drivers will ceaselessly encounter frustrating lane closures and restrictions on bridges for repairs needed just to keep it going for a few more years. Or, in a worst-case scenario, a bridge collapses at rush hour leading to a tragic—and preventable—loss of life.
Some may call for more reforms in state government or the MBTA and they would not be wrong. We should never hesitate to cast a critical eye on ourselves. That does not preclude, however, the hard math that says we’re not doing all we can in the most critical areas. We cannot afford to tinker around the edges. We either invest in our future or we tread water, and it is impossible to tread water forever.
When Gov. Patrick introduced his original $1.9 billion plan for transportation and education funding, 87 state business leaders signed a letter to the governor supporting his plan, recognizing how that funding is critical to their industries’ success. Fifty-seven economists signed a statement saying the chronic underfunding of Massachusetts’ education and transportation systems threatens our ability to stay competitive in a cutthroat economy that ignores state and even national borders, and asks one question: what can you produce?
We’ve survived the Great Recession. We can continue to simply survive, taking for granted what we have now until the bus route is cut or the highway bridge is closed. Or we can make the bold choice, the right choice, to remain unsatisfied with merely getting by and choosing not to follow in the new economy, but to lead.