Bill Would Allow Mass. Towns To Enact Tax To Fund Transportation

Mar 3, 2016

There is a push in the Massachusetts legislature to allow communities to impose local taxes for the purpose of funding area transportation projects.

State Senator Ben Downing is sponsoring a bill to enable a community or group of municipalities to enact a tax to finance local transportation projects.

“This is a way to control much more directly how we raise and how we spend money for transportation,” Downing said. “It’s also a way to guarantee that the dollars that are raised will stay in the community where they are raised.”

Under the bill, communities could seek payroll, sales, property and vehicle excise taxes. Town voters would need to approve any tax via a ballot initiative. The advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts is backing the effort.

“People across the state are suffering from potholes, crumbing roads, bridges that are in disrepair lack of transit service,” said group director  Kristina Egan. “In some communities they’re also calling for more bikeways and sidewalks so people can safely move about when they’re outside their cars. This bill would give voters the opportunity to shape their communities.”

Pioneer Valley Planning Commission Executive Director Tim Brennan says the effort has been among the policy initiatives of the state’s regional planning commissions. He says ridership has increased 75 percent since rail service was reintroduced to the main line in the Pioneer Valley.

“And so now the question has been, and rightly so, how do we add more service?” Brennan said. “How do we provide more options to passengers in Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield?”

Transportation for America Director James Corless says since 2013 10 states have passed similar legislation.

“In part they realize Congress is not going to come to their rescue anymore and increasingly even state capitals are broke,” said Corles.

Brennan says increased transit services for seniors and more freight rail options are among the potential projects for western Massachusetts. He says town and city governments would have to detail where and how money raised will be used.

“The way these are usually set is for a period of multiple years because you need that sort of pipeline for a project,” Brennan said. “At the end of that period, typically 10 or 20 years is what I’ve seen around the country, the ballot sunsets and the voter has to revote up or down. To me that’s the ultimate accountability tool.”

Senator Downing says the effort can work in urban and rural areas. The retiring Democrat who represents more than 50 communities in western Massachusetts says areas serviced by the MBTA in the greater Boston region could band together on projects.

“I think in the current structure people in western Mass[achusetts] are rightly skeptical that statewide transportation resources will make their way back out to the more rural communities,” Downing said. “This is a way to get around that.”

Senator Downing’s bill is joined by House legislation filed by Framingham Representative Chris Walsh. The Joint Committee on Revenue favorably reported the bill to the Senate Rules Committee. Last year, Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox filed legislation to allow communities to enact a gas tax of up to 3 cents per gallon to fund infrastructure improvements.