Thursday, March 05, 2009

Gas Me Up, Gov'nah...

Although other revenue options remain in the background, the most tax that has generated the most buzz and discord more than any of the others is Gov. Patrick's plan to raise the gas tax 19 cents on the gallon. The result would be over 40 cents of state collected tax. Although the amount is extremely controversial, it is the intended use of this extra money that has roiled Bay Staters more than anything else.

Of the nineteen cents to be imposed more than half would go to debt service at the MBTA and the Turnpike. Failure to add these moneys, the Administration claims, would result in service cuts/increased fares and higher tolls respectively. However, the outrage coming from Western Mass and some of the outlier areas of the Eastern regions has made set the stage for bruising battle.

The governor was in Springfield yesterday pushing his plan for a higher tax. He called upon the crowd at STCC to put aside "Regional Grievances" and take one for the team. Funny how the governor would call for the entire state to be "one for all and all for one" when he is simultaneously peddling an options tax that will pit communities against one another, but I digress.

The governor suggested that such disparities are made up for with other legislation, namely the Springfield recovery. That money will be paid back, however (It is for reasons like this that is good the stabilization loan was simply not forgiven)

It is possible to make an argument that some of the money go toward the Turnpike. It does extend along the entire state and the far western portion has not had tolls for ten years. Still, the state decided that the Turnpike should suffer to carry the Big Dig, which substantially affects only the Boston area. Additionally, it is hard to sympathize with those paying tolls for the Ted Williams tunnel for example, which is the only actual component of the Big Dig that is tolled.

However, it is asinine to think that almost one third of the proposed increase should go for the MBTA. Unlike the tunnels and the Turnpike, the MBTA is overwhelmingly used only by the people in the Boston area. Despite the promise that 3/4 of the overall tax would go back to "transportation districts," (thus far poorly defined) this remains a bad deal for the non-Boston parts of the state. Promises like this have been made before--and reneged. The math does not add up, either. Finally, extra compensation for the regional transit agencies across the state still does not make up for this second statewide directed subsidy for the MBTA. Already 20% of all sales tax paid in the entire state goes to the MBTA exclusively.

Legislators in the Boston area--in a rare example where what they say will probably not go--actually want a higher gas tax, as do Boston Business Groups and the Massachusetts Taxpayer Association. One legislator's bill would dedicate twelve cents of the gas tax to the MBTA. If six cents was asinine, what exactly would you call twelve? For all Boston area legislators and officials' gripes about the West and Cape's parochialism, how provincial is it for them to call for an even steeper tax when many of their constituents do not drive and do not need to? Certainly cuts in service at the MBTA and higher fares are a problem; however it is difficult for the rest of the state to care when the Boston area has enjoyed lower fares and less drastic cuts than virtually any other transit agency in the state.

A gas tax increase is inevitable. However both how much and where it goes is crucial. Areas unaffected by the MBTA and the Pike, too, should not be forced to deal, once again, with those agencies malfeasance. We should not also demand that all the money has to go for roads either. In New Hampshire, for example, the Supreme Court ruled the Gas Tax there could not be used on rail, hampering development in that state. We can have a gas tax that will benefit rail, but over here in the Pioneer Valley, not in Boston.

The answer may be more broad tax increases, followed by a direct infusion of cash by the commonwealth. The result may be the same, but non-Boston area residents can feel less cheated and in fact they will be. It is time for the West and other areas to stand up and demand that the Metro Boston area pay for its own mistakes. It could lead to region-based tax increases, but it could also mean better fiscal responsibility both on the state and local levels.

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