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Testimony to the Joint Committee on Revenue

April 10, 2017

 

To:  Chairs Brady and Kaufman and Members of the Joint Committee on Revenue:

Thank you for the opportunity to offer these comments in support of S.1551/H.1640, An Act Relative to Regional Transportation Ballot Initiatives, filed by Senator Eric Lesser and Representative Chris Walsh.

MASSPIRG is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security or our right to fully participate in our democratic society. Using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposes, and grassroots organizing, MASSPIRG delivers concrete results for the citizens of Massachusetts.

MASSPIRG supports this legislation because it it will give cities and towns an option, by way of ballot measure, to fund critical local and regional transportation investments.

Across the Commonwealth, our transportation infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization and expansion, from our roads to bridges, to trains and buses, to subway and rail stations, to bike paths and more. Investments in transportation can connect us to jobs, education, and healthcare, reduce the time we spend stuck in traffic or waiting for a bus, grow our economy, and protect our environment.

Despite substantial efforts, our transportation system is still falling apart faster than it can be repaired, and we are not making enough progress in building the system we need. Our transportation woes are out of character. In recent US News and World Report rankings, Massachusetts received high grades in health care, employment, business, environment, and even budget transparency, but the Commonwealth is at the back of the pack (#45) when it comes to transportation infrastructure (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/massachusetts).

Throughout the Commonwealth, there are transportation needs being neglected because there is not enough money. In its most recent Capital Investment Plan, MassDOT cataloged over 4,500 transportation projects, of which only about 1,800 were slated to receive any funding over the next five years (i.e., for every project funded at least in part, there are 1.5 unfunded projects). Repair costs continue to rise as road decay outpaces funding. Already almost 40% of our non-interstate roads are not in good condition, and MassDOT expects this number will only continue to grow. In ten years, at current funding levels, MassDOT forecasts that only 20% of state-owned roads will be in good or excellent condition. Over the same period, the number of structurally deficient bridges will start to trend upwards. And transportation officials recently acknowledged that fixing the MBTA could take 10 to 20 years – and even that estimate may be optimistic at the current spending rate (http://www.t4ma.org/keepingontrack) (https://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/8/docs/triennial/PAMAC_HwyTam011516.pdf).

Given all of this, we should be pursuing every opportunity for additional investment in our transportation system. This legislation creates a great mechanism to do just that.

This legislation creates a transportation financing option that recognizes there are differing regional needs throughout the Commonwealth. In a process that reflects the rich tradition of town meetings throughout Massachusetts, communities could get together and decide what their most pressing transportation needs are, and how to solve them.

Regional ballot initiatives provide a flexible funding opportunity that gives communities wide latitude to consider any number of possible transportation solutions. Cities or towns can fund and complete their own local projects or coordinate with one or more neighboring cities or towns to complete larger, more regional projects.

It is likely that this legislation will stimulate positive investment in our transportation system and support smart public transit and walking and bicycle infrastructure projects, rather than unwise and unnecessary highway building projects. Regional ballot initiatives necessarily involve local public buy-in for projects, and public support for public transportation is high. In 2015, more than half of Americans — and nearly two-thirds of Millennials, the country’s largest generation — want to live “in a place where they do not need to use a car very often.” Similar trends exist for older adults. Older adults in general put the creation of pedestrian-friendly streets and local investment in public transportation in their top five priorities for their communities (https://uli.org/research/centers-initiatives/terwilliger-center-for-housing/research/community-survey/).

In 2016, ballot initiatives supporting public transit were passed by large margins across the country. The following were among the most significant:

  • Seattle-area residents approved a $54 billion tax increase over the next 15 years to expand public transportation throughout the Puget Sound.

  • Voters in the city of Atlanta overwhelmingly approved a half-cent sales tax increase to fund Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority improvements and expansion. The money will go towards projects like improving local bus service, creating new streetcar lines, and building infill stations.

  • In North Carolina, Raleigh-area voters passed a half-cent sales tax to fund the Wake County Transit Plan.  With this successful vote, Wake County becomes the final corner of the Research Triangle to approve a dedicated revenue source for public transportation.

  • Indianapolis voters approved a 0.25% increase to the income tax which is estimated to raise $56 million annually to fund improved service and new Bus Rapid Transit construction.

  • Voters in San Francisco approved a $3.5 billion bond measure to bring Bay Area Rapid Transit back up to a state of good repair.

  • Residents in Tigard, OR, voted in favor of the proposed MAX Southwest Corridor light rail line.

  • Maine voters passed a $100 million transportation bond measure that will fund an array of transportation projects throughout the state, and transit is listed as eligible for funding.

  • Voters across New Jersey and Illinois both considered constitutional amendments to require additional funding to go to transit.  In New Jersey, Question 2 asked voters if they supported a requirement that all fuel tax revenue be allocated to transportation projects. Currently, a portion of that revenue can be used for other purposes. In Illinois, the ballot question asked if voters supported restricting the use of transportation revenue solely for transportation projects (including transit). Both measures passed by significant margins.

In addition to these measures, a full list of 2016 transit measures (as well as previous years) and their passage rates can be found at http://www.cfte.org.

This legislation has the potential not only to increase investment into our transportation system, but also to help us build a transportation system that reflects this century and decreases our unhealthy reliance on the car. By reducing traffic and pollution, and increasing our options for getting around, efficient public transportation systems like intercity rail and clean bus systems would make Massachusetts’s transportation future better for everyone. Communities across the country are already using successfully used regional ballot initiatives to significantly boost investment in public transit. This legislation would give communities across Massachusetts the opportunity to do the same.

For these reasons, MASSPIRG supports H.1640 and S.1551 and hopes that the Committee will report on these bills favorably. If you have any questions or require additional information, you can reach me by email at mcasale@masspirg.org or by phone at (617) 747-4314. Thank you for consideration of our perspective.
Respectfully,
Matthew Casale

Staff Attorney, MASSPIRG

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