Opinion

SIFTing through a good idea

The Massachusetts House of Representatives deserves praise for starting a discussion on innovative ways cities and towns can pay for transportation infrastructure projects.

The proposal adopted by the House on Tuesday would allow municipalities to designate taxes from the rising value of real estate toward specific infrastructure endeavors, the State House News Service reports.

A local funding mechanism to pay for infrastructure work has been the topic of previous legislative discussions, and the latest debate comes as House members begin discussions on a $40.9 million budget for the spending year that starts on July 1.

Road, bridge, highway, tunnel and other transportation infrastructure repairs are traditionally paid for with state and federal tax dollars. Cities and towns typically draw up repair lists ranging from local streets and sidewalks in need of repair to major road projects like the Wyoma Square-Broadway restoration work undertaken two years ago in Lynn.

Simply put, project ideas get tossed into a proverbial giant pot and ultimately end up on a state transportation funding wish list called a bond bill. It’s up to state legislators to allocate money to actually pay for projects year-in and year-out and state and federal transportation officials coordinate to determine how to combine funding for specific projects.

During his previous tenure as a state senator, Mayor Thomas M. McGee repeatedly pointed out the chronic shortfall in spending on Massachusetts transportation projects. He warned that insufficient transportation spending translates into a burden placed on the Massachusetts economy by clogged highways and overburdened transit systems.

City and town officials are well aware that local transportation projects take a long time to plan and execute, in part because the ways and means of paying for all but the smallest projects are beyond the reach of local government.

But the proposal debated by the House would allow local governments and local taxpayers to play a bigger role in financing projects aimed at helping their neighborhoods.

Dubbed Supplemental Infrastructure Financing for Transportation, or SIFT, the program would glean the rising value of real-estate tax receipts from a specific geographic area benefiting from infrastructure investment, the News Service reported.

As commercial developments sprout up around a planned exit ramp or train station or property values rise because of a new bike path or ferry pier nearby, the SIFT would sequester some of those extra property tax dollars to pay for the construction.

Each SIFT would need approval by the local government and would be negotiated with state officials, under the proposal.

There is precedent for implementing the funding proposal: When the Green Line Extension was waylaid by cost overruns, Somerville and Cambridge put up a combined $75 million to help finance the roughly $2.2 billion project, which is currently under construction.

The News Service reported that if the proposal makes its way into state law, it would join other similar methods for wringing funding out of anticipated economic development — such as District Improvement Financing, which allows municipalities to use expected property taxes to renovate part of town, and the Infrastructure Investment Incentive Program, or I-CUBED, which leverages anticipated state tax receipts to pay for local projects.

Good ideas don’t always become reality overnight, but a local means of paying for transportation projects is an idea worth discussing.

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