Gas tax or not, the cost of driving in Massachusetts is embarking on a one-way trip up, policy experts say.
Gas tax or not, transportation and policy experts say the cost of driving in Massachusetts is embarking on a one-way trip – upward.
Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to hike the state gas tax 19 cents to a nation-high 42.5 cents a gallon has been far from palatable to drivers and lawmakers alike. Experts, however, cautioned Thursday that residents will probably see transportation costs trickle down to their wallets with or without a higher state tax on gasoline.
State drivers have been on cruise control since 1991 when the state gas tax went to the current 23.5 cents a gallon under former Gov. William Weld.
As a result, the debate on the most fair way to finance road, bridge and public transit work is far overdue, said Noah Berman, executive director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
“This debate is a classic case of what government’s for,” he said. “There are some things we as citizens can’t do for ourselves: We can’t build roads and maintain them.”
And right now, the state is facing a $19 billion shortfall over the 20 years just to maintain its transportation infrastructure, according to the state Transportation Finance Commission.
“We have this $20 billion problem,” said Michael Widmer, a member of the commission and president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “If we only increase the gas tax a small amount, we really won’t have addressed our problem. Roads and bridges will continue to fall apart.”
The 19-cent gas tax increase Patrick now proposes includes money to prevent MBTA fare hikes, toll hikes and for road and rail projects.
But Republican lawmakers who vocally opposed any gas tax hike Thursday argued that residents shouldn’t be viewed as a revenue source until the potential cost savings of a comprehensive transportation overhaul plan have been considered.
Otherwise, the state is “putting the cart before the horse,” said state Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Pembroke.
“We can’t dip into people’s wallets every time there’s a problem,” he said. “Families make tough decisions and tighten their belts. We need to do the same on Beacon Hill before we go to them and say, ‘We need more money from you.’”
The gas tax, toll hikes and usage fees – such as the mileage tracking program proposed by Patrick – require those who use the roads most to pay the most.
Berman suggested that a more broad-based approach would be raising revenue through the income tax.
“But one way or the other, the choice is whether to spend money on prevention to make roads better or pay more later for the costs of having badly-maintained roads,” he said.
When road maintenance like fixing potholes can’t be funded, state commerce suffers and vehicle owners shovel out more cash for repairs, he said.
“I think we often debate taxes in the abstract,” he said. “If it’s disconnected from why you pay, people would like to pay less.”
Widmer said there is an immediate need for a higher tax at the gas pump, but Patrick’s idea of using GPS chips to charge drivers for their actual mileage is the future of transportation funding.
The monthly charges would amount to a usage fee for driving on state roads and bridges, similar to a utility bill.
“We as citizens will pay in one fashion or the other for the amount of miles we drive,” Widmer said. “That’s how it will be done in 15 to 20 years from now ... The question now is how we get there,” he said.
Reach Nancy Reardon at firstname.lastname@example.org.