The foreboding feeling that Beacon Hill is about to hike the gas tax is growing more palpable by the day, a lot like that ominous feeling you get when approaching a long line of brake lights on the highway. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and legislative leaders have spent much of the week in strategy talks over a transportation borrowing package they hope to usher through before Thanksgiving. The question we’re all waiting to hear answered — maybe the biggest question — is how they’ll pay for it, and specifically whether it involves raising the state’s 24 cents per gallon gas tax.
The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center reports the tax hit on Bay State drivers is now about a dime cheaper than the average paid by drivers on state and local taxes in most parts of the country, according to State House News Service. That’s surprising and a benefit likely wiped away by the extra cost of delivering gas from refineries to New England. Still, given this state’s tendencies, it’s sure to be fodder for those who argue for a tax hike. One advocacy group suggests Massachusetts motorists could take on as much as 25 cents per gallon more.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday reported a survey of business organizations that shows most agree with the need for overhauls of our transportation infrastructure — it’s undeniable, to be sure — and many acknowledge it’ll cost more money than the state is currently planning, a point that seems debatable. A chamber slide deck rolls out of a number of possibilities, including a 15 cents per gallon hike in the gas tax spread over a few years. Other money could come from extra fees on rides arranged through Uber and Lyft, broader tolling, as well as fees on fuel suppliers levied as part of a multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative, which, of course, are bound to be passed along in the price of gas.
But that’s just the chamber’s report — not everyone is so keen to raise the gas tax. The state’s retailers said Wednesday they aren’t in favor of a higher gas tax, added to whatever price increase arises from the multi-state climate plan. And a new gas tax is not part of the $18 billion spending plan that Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing for transportation projects.
That Massachusetts needs major investment in its highways and public transit is plain to anyone who drives or rides in a car, bus or train. For example, the chamber report notes Massachusetts has the forth-worst ratio of structurally deficient bridges (almost 12%) in the country — behind Rhode Island, West Virginia and Connecticut. It’s gotten so out of hand, the group reports, it will soon affect the state’s ability to lure businesses.
Pay-as-you-go is a sensible way to raise money for public works; better to cover highway projects with dollars from transportation-related fees and taxes than, say, income taxes. But any tax hike, especially one so broad as a gas tax hike, must be weighed cautiously. The farther one gets from Boston, and the farther one has to drive to work, church and the grocery store, the more burdensome a tax at the pump. Never mind the outsized impact on seniors with fixed incomes, or people working two or three jobs to get by.
Associated Industries of Massachusetts is among the handful of groups breaking with the regional chamber’s suggested gas tax hike. The inevitable increase from the multi-state climate plan is enough, the argue. Chris Geehern, AIM’s executive vice president, also notes the Baker package included steps to make designing and spending on transportation work more efficient.
“There’s a whole lot of structural problems that are preventing the T and the DOT from spending the money they have now,” he told the Boston Globe. “Dumping a boatload of money on that situation strikes us as really inefficient.”
Again, the necessity of the work seems obvious. Recent improvements to the commuter rail, making for better on-time service, for example, only come with millions spent on new engines and passenger cars less prone to breakdown.
But it’s a lot easier to part with a few cents per gallon more at the pump — which, again, feels as inevitable as being stuck in beep-and-creep traffic on Route 1 in the morning or jammed up on Interstate 93 in the afternoon — knowing your money is being spent efficiently and not squandered in bureaucracy.