ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
State Sen. Thomas McGee, State Rep. Brendan Crighton and State Rep. and City Council President Dan Cahill are seen at the commuter rail station in Lynn.
By THOMAS GRILLO
Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) isn’t shy about saying what’s needed to fix the region’s transportation problems: raise the gas tax and add more toll roads.
It’s a bold proclamation considering the anti-tax climate on Beacon Hill.
In January, Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) said the House will not propose any new taxes or fees in the new year. When then gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker ran for the office in 2014, he did not support raising taxes.
Voters seem to agree. While McGee supported a hike in the gasoline tax in 2013 that would have automatically adjusted gas taxes to inflation — funds that would be used exclusively to pay for infrastructure improvements — the measure was repealed the following year in a statewide ballot initiative.
“It’s more than just raising taxes,” he said. “It’s what services should we provide and how do we pay for them? Let’s have that discussion and then figure out the needed revenue.”
The legislation passed by the Legislature was the first time since 1991 that lawmakers had voted to raise the gasoline tax.
Still, DeLeo is not solidly in the no-tax camp. In 2009, he supported the increase in the sales tax to 6.25 percent, up from 5 percent, a move that boosted the state’s revenue by $900 million.
In addition, DeLeo has supported other tax hikes, including higher levies on cigarettes and gas. This year, DeLeo joined his Democratic colleagues to advance a 4 percent surtax on household incomes above $1 million that economists say could generate nearly $2 billion in new revenues annually.
While McGee and transportation advocates have suggested the possibility of installing tolls on some of the state’s other major highways, the idea hasn’t taken off. Baker implemented a “revenue neutral” switch to electronic tolling that will replace toll booths by the end of October.
Another way to bring in transportation revenue is to assess a tax on motorists based on the number of vehicle miles traveled annually. But that proposal seems to lack traction on Beacon Hill.
McGee bristles at the suggestion that taxpayers refuse to pay more, as the repeal of the gas tax suggests.
“Without new taxes, you have to deal with a system that’s ready to implode; it’s imploding now,” he said.
State Rep. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) agrees. He said taxpayers are willing to pay more if they can be guaranteed the money will be spent on transportation.
“Voters want to know that the money is going to the right place,” he said. “A bipartisan commission found that it would take $20 billion for infrastructure just to bring us up to the state of good repair and that was a decade ago.”
State Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn) said everyone agrees that public transportation is a critical part of our regional economy; it isn’t functioning well and a solution is needed. The difference of opinion, he said, is how to pay for it.
“The governor has said reform over revenue increases, but that will get us about a 10 percent saving and that won’t get us there — we need billions of dollars,” he said. “He has also said there will be no discussion of tax or fee increases, but we have to have those conversations.”
One key investment McGee has sought is an extension of the Blue Line to Lynn. He acknowledged that the three miles from Revere’s Wonderland to downtown Lynn could cost as much as $700 million at a time when the governor says the state is cash-strapped.
Rather than build new tracks, McGee suggests the Blue Line could be placed on the commuter rail line. He did not know how much that would trim the project’s cost.
McGee, who serves as co-chairman of the Senate’s Joint Transportation Committee, is passionate about improving the region’s infrastructure and expanding service that would include ferry service and a Blue Line stop at the commuter rail stop in downtown Lynn.
Both investments would get some commuters off Route 1 South to Boston that can easily take more than an hour to go 10 miles at rush hour.
“We have a commuter rail that doesn’t work for us, by the time the trains arrive, they are packed,” said McGee. “It costs more to take the commuter rail from Lynn than it does to take the Blue Line from Wonderland, and the mostly empty MBTA garage is crumbling.”
He points to Somerville, a city of similar size, that has the Red Line to Davis Square, the Orange Line at Assembly Square and soon the 4.3-mile Green Line extension that will provide service beyond a new Lechmere Station to College Avenue in Medford and to Union Square and three other stations.
“What was Davis Square like before the Red Line?” McGee asked.
Not much, just a handful of mom-and-pop stores, certainly not a destination point. Today it’s brimming with a Starbucks and a bunch of great eateries like Redbones Barbecue, Foundry on Elm, Anna’s Taqueria and the Burren, not to mention the revitalized Somerville Theatre.
The biggest challenge is not finding a great place to eat but a place to park.
Still, Somerville had the benefit of support from the powerful House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill who had persuasive powers in Congress and at the White House.
Today, the state’s delegation in Washington has limited power given their lack of tenure and the Republican control of Congress.
While Lynn is one of the communities in the state to offer commuter rail service, McGee said it has never been a major piece of the city’s transportation system.
“It takes us to North Station, which means it’s another transfer point for most people,” he said. “It doesn’t take you to the inner core or connect our region to Logan International Airport, which is a key piece of future economic development and opportunity.”
U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said there’s no question that improved transportation access is the key to growing Lynn.
“I’ve made it clear that economic development is my number one district priority and transportation is critical to that,” he said. “That’s why I recently secured a $4.5 million grant to purchase a ferry for the city.”
He said deep-sixing the Lynn ferry for this year flies in the face of every successful ferry service in the state, challenging the governor’s assertion that the boat failed to win enough riders to be sustainable. They all had modest beginnings, he said. The Hingham ferry started with one daily trip and now there are 15 with 4,000 riders, he said.
The impact of ferry service is not limited to getting cars off the traffic-choked highways, it’s the key to development on the Lynnway, Moulton added.
“The waterfront development around the Hingham ferry terminal is unbelievable,” he said. “That could be happening in Lynn today, but it won’t happen if we fail to even run the ferry we bought.”
Moulton also supports the Blue Line extension and the so-called North-South Rail Link, that would connect North and South Stations so passengers from north of Boston would not have to take other MBTA trains to get to their downtown destination. That proposed project has been championed by former Gov. Michael Dukakis who said it would unlock major development north of Boston.
Moulton said more than three dozen such links have been built in major cities around the world.
Still, there’s the question of whether Boston would be ready for another Big Dig, not to mention the cost. The bill would be about $680 million per mile to dig under the city of Boston — that’s as much as $2.8 billion, Moulton said.
“The Romney administration said it was an $8 billion project, but others say it’s not that much,” he said.
One way it could be paid for, he said, was for the state to abandon the idea of expanding South Station with additional tracks and a new office building.
“If we do the Blue Line extension and North-South Link, you would see an absolute real estate explosion in Lynn,” Moulton said.
Thomas Grillo can be reached at [email protected]