Editorial: How to make Boston pay for Big Dig

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

A coalition of Massachusetts business groups has seen Gov. Deval Patrick's gas tax proposal and raised the ante. Patrick wants to add 19 cents to the current 23-cent state gas tax. The coalition, which includes the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, argues that a 25-cent increase is needed to stabilize transportation finances, close the system's maintenance deficit and fund modest expansion.

With the Legislature about to begin seriously considering transportation finance reform, the size of the gas tax hike is clearly in flux. While part of the business lobby thinks 19 cents is too low, tax-phobic legislators say it's too high. Many voters who rarely use the Pike or the MBTA, and are thus insulated from the hikes in tolls and fares if no other revenue source is found, would rather see no gas tax increase at all.

But there is an alternative we've yet to hear: A larger gas tax increase for areas served by the Big Dig, and a smaller hike for the rest of the state.

In any discussion of Massachusetts transportation finances, the Big Dig is the elephant in the room. Debt on the Big Dig construction is the chief culprit in nearly bankrupting the Mass. Pike, and burdens the 'T' as well. Transportation finance reform should begin with taking that debt off the backs of toll-payers and 'T' riders.

But putting the cost of a single huge project on all who pay the gas tax understandably riles people from places far from Boston who for 20 years have seen their transportation priorities subordinated to the Big Dig's bottomless appetite for cash. You can argue that a better transportation infrastructure in the state capital indirectly helps the state treasury, but the folks in Pittsfield and Lowell and Fall River don't see those benefits directly.

The most obvious beneficiaries of the Big Dig are the people and businesses of Boston, even if they don't use the Big Dig tunnels. Thanks to the Big Dig, Boston's streets are less congested, its air is cleaner, and its neighborhoods reconnected to the waterfront with acres of new parks.

So why not make those who benefit more from the Big Dig pay a little more? Put a supplemental tax on gas pumped inside Rte. 128, dedicated to Big Dig bonds and scheduled by law to disappear once those bonds are paid off.

Patrick resists this suggestion, preferring a "we're all in the same boat'' approach. But he has made regional equity a selling point for his reform proposal, earmarking a portion of the gas tax proceeds for projects outside Boston. Using Rte. 128 to demarcate the communities with a greater stake in the Big Dig isn't new; it was written into the 1997 law that created the Metropolitan Highway System as a way to keep tolls collected in western Mass. from being spent in Boston.

A Metro Boston gas tax surcharge is the fairest, most efficient way to pay for the linchpin of Metro Boston's transportation system. Legislators should be debating two gas tax increases, not just one.

The MetroWest Daily News