Massachusetts Transportation Spending Plan in Some Limbo

A key transportation bill faces an uncertain future after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said he won’t sign the measure without changes.   After 2 months of closed door negotiations and hours of debate, the House and Senate approved a new transportation bill that would raise taxes by $500 million to pay for improvements on the state’s highway and transit systeme.  It would raise the gas tax by 3 cents, hike the cigarette tax by a dollar, impose new taxes on business and reinstate tolls on exits 1 through 6, the western part of the Mass Turnpike.  It would also redirect revenue so by 2018, $800 million would go to transportation. But the Governor sent a letter late Wednesday saying he was sending the bill back to lawmakers with an amendment.  Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey says the $135 million in toll revenue counted on by the House and Senate to reach their target investment goals will disappear after January 1, 2017:

“Unfortunately the bill before us is not $800 million …. Its $670 million dollars because the western Turnpike tolls are scheduled to come down in 2017.”

The Governor originally called for $1.2 billion for transportation investment. And he threatened to veto previous versions of the bill.  Davey says the Governor will compromise at $800 million but he won’t go lower than that. Davey says Patrick had not decided what his proposed amendment would be:

“We could keep the tolls up. We could let the tolls come down…. Truly 800 million dollar bill.”

Davey says a $1.2 billion dollar bill would have funded more capital projects.  He’s not sure yet which projects won’t move forward, but says the governor remains committed to south coast rail and the MBTA’S Green Line extension.
If lawmakers reject Patrick’s amendment, the governor would then have to decide whether to sign or veto the bill in its current form. There seem to be enough votes to override a veto but there’s no guarantee.  An extended impasse over the transportatioN bill could affect other state finances. The state budget assumes the $500 million in new taxes and the MBTA’s budget also assumes funding from the transportation bill to erase the transit system’s projected $118 million deficit. Davey says he remains optimistic that all sides can come to an agreement.