Competing Massachusetts Transportation Plans Vary Widely

Boston — Competing plans for financing transportation in Massachusetts prompted some of the sharpest rhetoric in years between Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders last week, only months after the governor had called for an “adult conversation” over the state’s crumbling infrastructure and chronic transportation-related deficits.

Patrick called the plan unveiled by legislative leaders and scheduled for debate in the House tomorrow a “fiscal shell game” that only pretended to solve the state’s transportation needs, while House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the approach lawmakers were taking addresses the most urgent problems without imposing a bigger tax burden on middle-income families and small businesses.

The issue is that the state’s transportation system is awash in debt from the Big Dig and other past projects, forcing it to borrow to pay for employee salaries and other operating costs.

The MBTA, which raised fares an average 23 percent last year, faces another operating deficit that could necessitate additional fare hikes or service cuts. The financial crunch squeezes the state’s ability to fix deficient roads and bridges or replace outmoded equipment — such as Red Line trains dating back to the 1960s — or invest in new transportation services such as the extension of commuter rail to New Bedford. Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey has said on numerous occasions the state cannot afford the transportation system it currently has, let alone the one it wants.

There are differing opinions on what might be the proper fix.

Nearly everyone involved in the transportation discussion agrees that more money is needed — both to address immediate needs and the longer term vision of a modern, efficient transportation system for a growing economy. The plans introduced by legislative leaders and the administration both raise additional revenue for transportation, but vary dramatically in size and scope.

At the heart of the dispute lies a key philosophical difference: The administration envisions a 10-year, $13.6 billion plan that would erase the current transportation deficit but also allow the state to embark on an ambitious capital improvement plan. The Legislature’s five-year plan focuses on solving the immediate gap while putting off, for the moment, decisions on which long-term capital projects to embrace.

“It provides no resources to borrow for any of those capital expenses,” said Rafael Mares, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, of the lawmakers’ proposal.

By now, most taxpayers have heard how the numbers line up.

The governor is seeking $1.9 billion in new tax revenue, including a hike in the income tax from 5.25 percent to 6.25 percent. The smaller legislative plan seeks about $500 million in new taxes, including a three cent hike in the gas tax and higher tobacco taxes.

But when it comes to transportation, things get more complicated. Patrick’s plan would direct $1 billion of the new revenues to transportation, with the rest going toward new education initiatives. The Legislature’s plan dedicates $240 million to transportation, leaving open the question of where the rest of the $500 million would end up.