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Derrick Z. Jackson

Start the conversation on gas tax

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / September 21, 2011

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LAST WEEK, Governor Patrick described the need for an “adult conversation’’ on modernizing the state’s transportation system. He should start the conversation by resurrecting his proposal for an increase in the gas tax, even though he says he got his “head handed to me’’ in his 2009 bid for a hike. One way Patrick can get the ball rolling is to talk about the change in transportation attitudes in Western Europe, where cities were as congested as ours well into the 1970s and Europeans scoffed at car-related taxes much the way we do now.

Those attitudes were captured in a 1991 survey by the Commission of European Communities and the International Union of Public Transport. The study found that the vast majority of drivers in Western Europe thought better public transportation, more pedestrian walkways, and a limit on the number of cars in cities would relieve congestion. Still, only 12 percent thought higher gasoline prices would help, and only 25 percent thought that extra tolls at urban centers would alleviate congestion.

But the survey also detected critical shifts in thinking that are quite different than in the United States, where federal highway funding lords over mass transit. More than two-thirds of drivers in the Netherlands and Denmark, and a plurality of drivers in Germany, thought new highways were “ineffective’’ solutions for congestion.

If Germany, the country that gave us Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, and the Autobahn, thought this way 20 years ago, why can’t we?

A key conclusion in 1991 was that the vast majority of Europeans believed public transportation, pedestrians, and cyclists should get preferential treatment over private cars in public planning. A large percentage said they were less in favor of cars than politicians thought they were.

These views became the basis of policy planning and public investment, and now a remarkable restructuring of many European cities is occurring. There are bicycle-friendly streets, bike-sharing programs, and car-free downtown walking zones and avenues in major cities in Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria. For commuters who insist on driving into London and Stockholm, there are urban congestion taxes. Those countries have lived with gasoline prices double ours for years.

Patrick can get the conversation going by saying that we are in many ways eerily where the Europeans were in 1991. Polls, whether done by transportation advocates or major newspapers, find support for rail and bus service growing to the level that the Chicago Tribune poll last year concluded, “repairing and expanding expressways and toll roads should take a back seat.’’

A 2008 Boston Globe/University of New Hampshire poll found that 65 percent of Massachusetts adults said the Big Dig was not worth it. Seventy percent of drivers say their car commute has not changed or become longer. Just as Europeans were ahead of their politicians on car attitudes, so too, might be Massachusetts drivers, if truly engaged. That 2008 poll found that a significant minority of respondents, 40 percent, supported a gas tax hike, and all respondents favored a gas tax hike over highway toll hikes and MBTA transit fare increases. Yet Beacon Hill told Patrick a gas tax was a non-starter.

Asked this week how he would start this “adult’’ conversation about gas taxes as a way to build revenue for public transportation, new state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, who formerly ran the MBTA, said, “We have to ask ourselves what kind of transportation system we want. Do we want one that is ready for the 21st century or do we want one that because of lack of investment is more like the 1950s and ’60s? Do you want one where you have a 9 a.m. meeting and you’re stuck in rush hour for two hours? Can you catch a night bus in Springfield? Can you catch a weekend bus in the Berkshires? Those are the questions to ask in an adult conversation.’’

With all kinds of budget crises looming in transportation, Patrick has no choice but to start it.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.