Transit Debt Overtakes State

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

With every blow of the hammer on Boston’s Big Dig—the project that overhauled the Central Artery and constructed a new harbor tunnel—voices warned that the project would overwhelm Massachusetts’ transportation budget for 40 years to come.

As the cost of the Big Dig sped past the original estimate of $2 billion, passed $6 billion and finally reached nearly $15 billion, there were casualties along the way: James Kerasiotes, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, was dismissed from his job because federal investigators found that he had fudged accounts to hide the fact that the costs were exceeding the $10.8 billion he swore would be the price of the project.

A Boston Globe investigation in 2003 found over $1 billion in overruns by the builders of the project, the lead contractor being Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. One example was a failure by Bechtel to include the Fleet Center in the design for the road. That error alone cost an estimated $991,000 to correct, but instead of forcing Bechtel to eat the cost, the state simply paid the company, which had donated lavishly to politicians here.

The Globe estimated that the project, with interest, would actually cost $22 billion by the time it was paid off in 2038. Ongoing debt service on it would suck money from local road and bridge repair through the intervening decades, critics warned, and that’s where we are now. With the transportation budget bogged down in the Big Dig and other past commitments, the Department of Transportation is $684 million a year in the hole, and as drivers, or just as taxpayers, we who live in the commonwealth are about to be tapped for more than a billion a year.

How exactly will the money come? A DOT report presented Monday offered six possibilities, all of them irritating.

The gas tax could go up by 30 cents a gallon, giving Massachusetts residents a gas tax of 51 cents a gallon, the highest in the country. Think you can evade helping pay for the boondoggle by not driving? Another suggestion is that the sales tax could be hiked 1.5 percent, from 6.25 percent to 7.7 percent, which would assure that even the carless help pay for the expensively renovated Central Artery. Or the state income tax could be raised by 8 percent, to 5.66 percent.

Drivers could pay an annual “vehicle miles traveled” tax of 2.4 cents a mile, with the miles to be recorded by a device in their cars (yet another issue about which our cars could tattle on us). A “green fee” based on each vehicle’s carbon emissions could supply some of the money. Tolls and fees for public transit could rise, not just once but often: 5 percent every two years for the MBTA and the Turnpike, for example. (The governor favors lowering the sales tax by 1.75 percent and using a part of it for transportation, while raising the income tax from 5.25 to 6.25 percent to make up for the revenue lost by lowering the sales tax.)

State officials also want to sell $13 billion in bonds to extend the MBTA’s Green Line to Somerville and Medford; extend commuter rail to the South Shore; replace aging buses and subway cars; and, in a nod to the western part of the state, improve rail service between Springfield and Boston and between Pittsfield and New York City.

Another goal of the new plans is to eliminate the costly necessity of using borrowed money for DOT operating expenses.•

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