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Spilka: Fixing transportation without raising Pike tolls

May 5, 2013

By Sen. Karen Spilka/Guest Columnist
The MetroWest Daily News
Sunday, May 5, 2013

Competing in the global economy requires a 21st century transportation system. Our quality of life and economic vitality hinge on having adequate public transportation and infrastructure systems. Last month, the Senate took action to address these critical needs by passing An Act Relative to Transportation Finance. We took care not to overburden residents and I am pleased to say that I was successful in securing a number of provisions that strengthened the bill by increasing equity, promoting efficiency, and protecting taxpayers.

Our bill dedicates more than $830 million of new and redirected funds to our transportation system, solving the immediate and long-term structural deficits at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). It also increases revenue to provide at least $100 million annually for the next five years for other critical investments including education, worker training, and human service programs.

For too long, certain populations have had to pay a heavy price to finance transportation projects that benefit the entire state. Luckily, the final bill included three of my amendments to ease this burden and increase protections for commuters using I-90 and the Tobin Bridge. The bill requires the DOT and MBTA to increase efficiency by setting firm benchmarks for their operating budgets, pushing these agencies to save money and improve performance. An amendment I filed makes it clear that the DOT cannot raise tolls to meet these financial requirements – it will prevent them from looking to our wallets to fund their budgets.

In the past, I’ve fought to protect commuters by requiring toll dollars to be used for projects on the road they are collected on – and nowhere else. One of my top priorities during our debate was preserving these protections. I led the charge to remove language that would have directed toll dollars collected on the Turnpike to fund projects throughout the state.

During our debate, we found creative, new ways to fund our transportation system. One of these sources of revenue comes from an amendment I filed that gives us the chance to do what many other states already do – toll the interstate highways at our borders.  Just as we are tolled going into New Hampshire, this change calls for out-of-state drivers to contribute to the maintenance of the Massachusetts roads they travel on.

Supporting a world-class transportation system is costly but necessary. Currently, this expense is magnified because we ship our buses and trains out-of-state for major repairs.  My colleagues joined me in supporting an amendment requiring the DOT to find a way to fix these vehicles here in Massachusetts. We cannot be sending these opportunities out-of-state while members of our skilled workforce struggle to find quality jobs.

This bill is the first step in a larger discussion on how to support and strengthen vital public services while protecting the middle class. Strategic investments in other areas are necessary to ensure our economic stability and sustainability. To keep this dialogue going, I fought to establish a Tax Fairness Commission to examine our tax system and identify changes needed to ensure revenue is raised equitably. The Commission, which received bipartisan support, will help us continue this conversation about raising revenue fairly to meet our needs without hurting struggling individuals and businesses.

In the coming weeks, a conference committee will produce a compromise bill for final passage. In order to receive my support, it must include the provisions we secured in the Senate to protect commuters and taxpayers. Supporting our communities and making investments that spur private sector job creation have always been my top priorities. I will continue to fight for a transportation system that serves everyone.

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, represents the 2nd Middlesex and Norfolk district.

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