BOSTON -- Traffic congestion has returned to Greater Boston as pandemic restrictions are lifted, rekindling debate about transportation funding.
Before the pandemic, Democrats on Beacon Hill were advancing a host of proposals that relied on higher taxes and fees — such as a 5 cent per gallon gas tax hike, congestion pricing for major highways, and higher fees for ride-haling services — to raise money for the state’s transportation needs.
But those plans were shelved amid shutdowns to prevent spread of the coronavirus, which also thinned the traffic on area streets.
Now, with a state of emergency lifted and traffic returning to normal, transit advocates are calling on lawmakers to return to those plans.
“We need to revisit solutions to invest and expand funding for our roads, bridges and public transit, and encourage people to get out of their cars,” said John Stout, transportation campaign director for Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.
Stout said a plan to increase ride hailing fees for Uber and Lyft, which sputtered last year, is back on the move as part of the next fiscal year’s budget proposal.
“A lot of things are moving, and we expect to see a real shift in the wind on these issues,” he said.
A number of transit revenue-related proposals that were back burnered in the Legislature during the pandemic have been re-filed, with more than a year left in the current two-year legislative session.
Transportation advocates want the state to pursue bold initiatives to ease traffic, such as congestion pricing — an idea Gov. Charlie Baker has rejected.
“We know that pricing works, everywhere in the world, as an incentive to drive less, ease congestion and get more people to use public transit,” said Josh Ostroff, interim director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. “It has benefits that we need to put into the equation.”
Such plans would involve lowering tolls along major highways during off-peak times but raising them at rush hour on the Tobin Bridge and elsewhere.
Massachusetts has a backlog of maintenance on roads and bridges estimated at $50 billion — a figure compounded by the decline in federal highway dollars.
Baker has also scoffed at the idea of raising gas taxes, though he still supports a multi-state greenhouse gas reduction initiative that would be funded, in part, by increasing gas taxes.
The need for more transportation funding also was a key selling point of the proposed “millionaires tax,” which lawmakers recently approved for the 2022 ballot.
The proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, would set a 4% surtax on the portion of an individual’s annual income above $1 million. The money would be earmarked for education and transportation.
In Congress, lawmakers are considering President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, which would provide more money for transportation.
While it’s not clear how much Massachusetts would get, a White House fact sheet laid out the state’s needs. Topping the list are aging roads and bridges, many of which are in a state of disrepair, according to the statement.
The Biden administration’s Infrastructure Report Card gave the state a C- grade, saying there are 472 bridges and 1,194 miles of highway in poor condition.
“For decades infrastructure in Massachusetts has suffered from a systematic lack of investment,” a White House statement read. “The need for action is clear.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.