MASSACHUSETTS TRANSPORTATION FUNDING A BLUEPRINT FOR SOLVING VERMONT’S OVERALL FISCAL PROBLEMS?
The dramatic proposed income tax increase to deal in a revolutionary way with highway, passenger rail, MBTA service along with needed education investments in Massachusetts presents an interesting approach to solving Vermont’s dual fiscal problem: chronic transportation funding deterioration nearing bankruptcy, and a General Fund unable to cope with mostly human resource demands and upcoming Obamacare.
Governor Deval Patrick included expansion of rail passenger service into the western Berkshires, cut the sales tax by a penny, and increased income taxes mostly on a progressive basis—and raises $1.9 billion for needed transportation and education investment. Revolutionary in terms of ending the highway—and particularly public transit and rail passenger--funding tied to the gas tax and related highway revenue sources. Still, he set regular raises for all gas, fees highway taxes also as part of his package.
How does this relate to Vermont? First, the rule of 10—Vermont has a tenth of the Massachusetts population, so ten percent of the Patrick $1.9 billion amounts to $190 million in Vermont. Cut that arbitrarily to $150 million annually for our lower incomes and you still obtain a substantial amount of funding to solve immediate budget issues in transportation, education and other human services (transportation becomes more of a human service in the process) while providing for several new initiatives held back during the 2008-2012 period of austerity. Add the challenge in the coming year to meet the needs of Obamacare.
To give a sense of what $150 million means in Vermont budgeting just consider that the patch for transportation funding—it is a patch not a long term solution—costs $36.5 million, the Burlington Free Press reports. Meanwhile other issues—bringing Amtrak Ethan Allen service north from Rutland to Burlington, considering new commuter rail and intercity rail passenger services, and ending the funding penalty to regional public transit agencies—face an endless period of delay and while demands of workers, tourists, businesses and local transportation not only are shortchanged but the Vermont economy as a whole suffers. For example, it is estimated that regular commuter rail service between Burlington and Montpelier State House would cost less than $5 million year, including paying for capital costs, with 80% of the cost federal funds and less than a $1 million in State match required. Very little in additional funding, probably about $2 million, extends the Ethan Allen to Burlington, and, finally, the establishment of a statewide rail passenger network could begin phase by phase.
Consider for a moment that Census shows Vermont added over 7,000 jobs between 2000 and the 2006-2010 period—but the increase in those riding in a car to work grew by barely 100—the equivalent of 99% of all new workers for the period walked, bicycled, bused or worked at home! New travelers by car to work the new 1%! That statistic represents change one can truly believe in, and transportation services must be expanded, particularly intercity and commuter rai, to meet the changed ransportation demands of today.
Hopefully the Legislature and Governor Shumlin and other policy leaders will consider what Gov. Deval Patrick pioneers and use his blueprint to advantage Vermont and its citizens.