How many of you have been caught in traffic or, worse yet, just avoided an accident on Route 114 in Lawrence and North Andover?
How many of you have driven on I-93 or I-495 and have found segments to be like driving on a washboard?
How many of you have waited on a commuter rail platform for over an hour for the next train?
These are the kind of questions we deal with here at the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission (MVPC) on a daily basis. MVPC is the regional agency charged with helping identify ways of addressing these questions and the many other transportation needs in the Merrimack Valley.
Providing good, reliable and effective transportation to its citizens is one of the basic and most critical roles governments can play. We need to connect people to jobs with sensible, reliable public transit and safe, congestion-free roads and highways. Pounding across pothole-ridden highways and bumping along in buses that do not run after 6 p.m. is not what we need to propel the Merrimack Valley into the future.
While there is never a good time to raise revenue to address these needs, the commonwealth cannot afford not to do so. The time is now to enact a plan to fix and modernize our transportation system. We find ourselves at this crossroads because of our investment in the “Big Dig” and decades of short-term fixes that underfunded our roads and public transit. But make no mistake: Not funding our transportation system is a choice, and not doing so will ensure that other states move ahead of us in the years and decades to come.
Across the country many states are considering ways to bring new revenue to their transportation needs. Virginia is considering cutting their gas tax and replacing it with a sales tax since cars are much more mileage efficient today and the revenue generated from the gas tax is declining. Oregon is experimenting with a vehicle-mile travel fee as they transition away from declining gas tax revenue. South Carolina is considering a sales tax on vehicles to be dedicated for transportation. Michigan is considering a vehicle registration fee increase and Wisconsin is considering selling surplus state assets to raise new revenue for transportation. And many states like West Virginia and Washington are considering just raising their gas tax. Massachusetts needs to debate its options as these states are doing.
Some will suggest that we need to bring reforms to the system and find ways to cut existing budgets to address the need. In 2009, then-Sen. Steve Baddour led the effort to reform our transportation delivery system to bring efficiencies and savings to the system and every year the Legislature develops a state budget that cuts funds to so many programs to ensure we have a balanced budget. And each year is another year that the 21 cents/gallon gas tax passed in 1991 buys us fewer solutions. While we must demand that reforms continue and tough decisions are made these actions alone will not produce the amount of savings needed to prepare our transportation system for ourselves and future generations.
Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed an income tax hike and a reduction in the sales tax. The Legislature has yet to weigh in on the issue and other options could be on tap for debate. Regardless of the option we must make sure that if funding is generated that it is dedicated to transportation, that priority is given to fixing our existing system and that any proposed expansion project requires a selection process that is transparent, participatory and includes an agreed-upon cost-benefit analysis.
I have been the executive director of MVPC for over six years and I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that our transportation needs far exceed the funding available. We can no longer defer the debate on what is acceptable. We need to consider the funding options and decide how to fix the problem. As I like to say: “You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.” You decide.
Dennis DiZoglio is executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.