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Patrick plan fuels debate
[February 23, 2009]

Patrick plan fuels debate

(Sun, The (Lowell, MA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 21--BOSTON -- Gov. Deval Patrick's politically risky proposal to increase the state's gasoline tax by 19 cents drew sharp criticism from many lawmakers yesterday, while Democratic leaders vowed to work with the governor, particularly on several key reform measures to streamline bureaucracy and cut back on pension perks.

Patrick, with regard to the state's crumbling infrastructure and mounting transportation debt, said "the level of neglect is shocking" and that it will take major reforms along with new sources of revenue to fix the problem.

"A high-functioning transportation system is no luxury. It's a necessity to all of us," Patrick said during an afternoon press conference where he rolled out his transportation-reform proposal.

Patrick said he "reluctantly" came to embrace the idea of gas-tax hike as part of that solution, calling for an immediate 19-cent increase that would be tied in the future to the consumer price index.

The increase would give Massachusetts a 42.5-cent per-gallon gas tax, the highest in the nation surpassing the 41.3 cents charged to drivers in New York.

Patrick said it would cost the average driver about $8 a week, the cost of one large cup of coffee a day.

Rep. David Nangle, a Lowell Democrat, yesterday voiced opposition to the tax increase.

"My first thought is I'm very apprehensive about any sort of tax. I don't care if it's 29 cents, 19 cents or 9 cents. I'm more worried about constituents in my district that are in unemployment lines," Nangle said.

Nangle said the state should look to racetrack slots and even casinos for new revenue before turning to the gas tax.

The new revenue generated from the gas-tax increase -- about $500 million -- would be used to roll back proposed toll increases on the Turnpike, preserve MBTA and commuter-rail services without fare increases, and pay for rail projects, regional transit authorities and targeted road-and-bridge projects in all corners of the state.

"I would absolutely be willing to consider his proposal. I've been on the record in support of a gas-tax increase for over two years," said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, who said he was encouraged by the investment proposed in railroads and regional transit. "It would be outrageous to raise the tolls on western Mass. drivers, especially since so much has gone to pay off the Big Dig. The gas tax is the most equitable and fair because it will be paid for by all people who drive." To reform the state's transportation system, the governor's plan would create one Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works with four divisions -- Highway, Rail & Transit, Aviation & Port and Registry of Motor Vehicles. MassHighway, the Turnpike Authority and the MBTA would be eliminated, while the Massachusetts Port Authority would remain a separate entity overseeing Logan Airport and the seaport.

The consolidation, he said, would eliminate redundancies and create savings by eliminating up to 300 positions in the transportation bureaucracy.

He also called for eliminating special perks in the pension system at the MBTA such as the rule that allows employees to retire with a full pension after 23 years of service regardless of their age.

Rep. Jim Arciero, a Westford Democrat, said he was "adamantly opposed" to any gas-tax increase, but liked the governor's reform ideas.

"People should not be getting a pension before they are 50 years old," Arciero said.

The Senate has put forth its own consolidation and reform package, but withheld asking for any new revenue.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, called the governor's proposal "thoughtful" and said it gives the Legislature a starting point to work from. He said he didn't know what the "magic number" for the gas tax might be, but agreed reforms and new revenues will be needed.

Rep. Kevin Murphy, a Lowell Democrat, said he would not support any new taxes until all areas of government have been squeezed for savings, including transportation and higher education, where salaries are among the highest in state government.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles will begin looking immediately into the idea of charging drivers on state highways by the mile using a computer tracking chip. Oregon already has a similar system in place that could be used as a model. Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The Associated Press yesterday that he wants to consider the idea. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later said that the plan "is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration." The governor's plan does not call for new tolls on the New Hampshire border, but he said border tolls were still very much an option for the future.

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