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When $1 billion is the right price

signState legislators are trying to figure out how much we need to raise in new revenue to fix our transportation system. Like most of the public, many of them are confused by the numbers being thrown around and by what we’ll get at the end of the day.

While the numbers continue to get refined, here is what it looks like in broad, simple strokes:

  • Every year, MassDOT borrows about $250 million to pay for staff salaries. This practice must stop immediately and will cost $250 million to fix. Doing this will save taxpayers a lot of money in the long run—we shouldn’t pay interest on salaries, it needs to be covered by the annual operating budget.
  • The MBTA’s annual deficit is projected to rise from $115 million this year to about $400 million over the next four years because its funding from the sales tax has never lived up to projections. It will cost about $250 million per year to fix this problem.

That gives us a rather depressing starting point of $500 million per year needed just to correct the mistakes of the past. However, fixing these problems will reduce the debt and will free up funds to do some exciting things.

An additional $500 million per year in revenue will:

  1. Fix our roads and bridges. They are old and take a beating from the winter every year. We need to do more maintenance and re-paving than most of the country, but we’re near the bottom of the barrel in terms of transportation spending—45th out of 50 states.
  2. Make public transportation a viable option statewide, not just around Boston. The Regional Transit Authorities will be able to increase service significantly around regional centers.
  3. Buy new Orange, Red, and Green Line cars for the MBTA, which will allow more trains to run and accommodate more passengers comfortably. Fixing the signalization and modernizing the system will increase its capacity and make it work on time.
  4. Fix the commuter rail lines to avoid delays, increase service, and keep fares reasonable.
  5. Triple the amount of walking and biking we do in this state. Almost every city and town has villages, town centers, or urban squares that could become great places if they were more pleasant for walking and biking. This increases property values, improves public health, and attracts businesses. We will be able to create a true statewide network of bike paths and walking trails.
  6. Connect our state better with strategic investments, and especially rail and bus connections that will enable us to grow without choking our roads. The costs of owning a car are increasing, and having viable options will save money in the long run.

Back in 2007, the nonpartisan Transportation Financing Commission said that the state needed between $15 and $19 billion over 20 years just to maintain our existing infrastructure without enhancements or expansions. Without definitive action this year, the price tag may soon balloon to $26 billion needed by 2030.

Let’s face it. We’re going to need to fix transportation sometime. Let’s do it now so that it saves us from even more expensive problems, and let’s do it right.

Please call your legislator.

And take a moment to email your legislator.

For more details about the financing issues, please see the Maxed Out report and this testimony to the Joint Committee on Transportation.