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Taking a look at transportation reform, and a change on 128

Posted by Nichole Davis  January 18, 2013 06:31 PM

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Today's entry is a bit of a doozy. Lots going on -- I've outlined the Patrick Administration's plan for transportation funding, and their ideas on how to get the system back to good. I've also got some news on a new traffic pattern on 128, the holiday schedule in place for Monday on the MBTA, and your usual construction information.

I'll be taking Monday off for the holiday -- have a safe commute, and I'll be back later on next week with more of your questions and ideas. If you have anything to pass on, please send it to me at commuting dot boston at!

One of the hot topics around the Commonwealth over the past week has been the plan for transportation that Governor Deval Patrick and his administration (including the DOT) released. Over the past few days, many of the pieces have been refined and re-released (some details were also discussed in the governor's State of the State address), but here's a general overview as to what's up.

As you may remember, the plan for ideas to handle the state's heavy transportation debt from the governor's office was actually required by law, thanks to a passage of emergency funding by the legislature for the MBTA last year. In that bill, the legislature said Patrick and his administration were required to submit a plan to tackle the looming deficit and get the transportation programs back up to speed.

The plan also highlights transportation projects that the state wants to focus on over the next ten years -- some are called "Good Repair Priorities", which include:

  • $1.175 billion dollars to a new bridge program that's meant to be based on the (so-far) successful Accelerated Bridge Program. That program's been pushing through repairs on local bridges, such as the Fore River Bridge and the Neponset River Bridge. Some of the bridges to be repaired in the new program would be local, others more regionally-based.
  • $930 million to "Regional Priority Projects". There's three major construction projects that the DOT says need to be done in the next ten years to avoid traffic catastrophe. This includes the renovation of the 93 cloverleaf at 128 (which is the busiest intersection in the state, if you weren't aware), 91 through Springfield, and the 128/95 interchange in Canton.
  • $450 million to be allocated to purchasing new buses to replace old, worn-out MBTA buses. Some of this money would also be used to fix bus-related equipment.
  • $1.5 billion for brand new Red and Orange Line cars. According to the DOT report, there are cars on the Red Line that are almost 45 years old -- and some cars on the Orange Line are just over 30 years old. Might be time to retire a few of those. There's newer Red Line cars that were implemented in 1994, but those, too, need a $200 million overhaul. This money would also be used for repairs to tracks and signals.
  • $732 million would also be spent on new Green Line cars. This, according to the report, would allow more three-car trains to be in use during rush hour. Some of this cash would also go to repairing signals and tracks.
  • $300 million would be allocated for general repairs in the MBTA system - power service, water pumps, tracks, tunnel work, signals, so on and so on.

(Keep in mind -- the DOT says they want the new MBTA cars on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines to be fully state funded. They say by doing this, it'll require assembly to be done here in the Commonwealth, which would then contribute back to the state through job creation.)

The plan also outlines major expansion plans for the transportation system, including:

  • $1.8 billion for South Coast commuter rail service. The "South Coast Line" would, as we've discussed, connect Fall River and New Bedford to downtown Boston. Officials at the DOT say the project would significantly ease congestion on Route 24, create almost 4,000 new jobs, and generate $500 million in economic activity each year for an area that's trying to renew itself.

  • $674 million would be dedicated to the Green Line expansion through Somerville into Medford, which is already underway. This, of course, is assuming the Federal Transit Administration will follow through with funding half the project, as has been discussed in the past.

  • $850 million would be dedicated to a complete overhaul and expansion of South Station in downtown Boston. The report says the station would need to create more room for the South Coast Line, expanded Amtrak service, and possibly high speed rail to Montreal.

  • $362 million would fund work on what officials are calling the "Inland Route". This is a project dedicated to connecting Boston and Springfield via high speed rail. This money would be used to create a second track, put up stations, and everything else that's included in laying down a new rail route. The report mentions that they'd hope for this stretch to eventually be included in another high speed route to New York City, through Springfield and possibly Hartford.

  • $20 million would be allocated for a permanent, weekend-based Cape Cod line from Boston to Hyannis. Another $113 million would be used for rail expansion through the Berkshires over the Connecticut state line, with eventual service to New York City.

Also, something to consider -- according to Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, the bill for transportation-related expenses just in the coming year is going to be much higher than the revenue we have -- something to the tune of $500 million.

So, how to pay for all of this? This new plan from the DOT and the governor's office touches on a variety of different possible sources of revenue. Originally, the DOT's ideas ranged from somewhat reasonable to a little bit... we'll say, "out there". Some ideas involve keeping the tolls in place statewide, as well as instituting "green fees" on less environmentally efficient cars. Okay, those sound reasonable.

Another idea? Tax everyone statewide by installing transponders in each car -- to the tune of two-ish cents per mile, no matter where you drove. In exchange for being taxed, you'd allegedly be exempt from paying gas taxes. As intriguing as that is, I'm not sure that would really fly. Another idea included instituting a new .16 percent payroll tax that employers would have to shoulder. With that tax in place, the DOT says they would be able to take in the $141 million annually that's needed to cover the deficit.

Other ideas involved reforms of programs already in place. Some of these include instituting "All Electronic Tolling", which has been implemented for some time up at the Hampton tolls on 95 in New Hampshire. That would eliminate cash collection completely -- you'd pay your toll either using an E-Z Pass or through a bill that you'd receive in the mail using a video tolling system. The Registry of Motor Vehicles has also looked to cut down on expenses by moving several popular basic transactions online, including license and registration renewals.

Of course, those were all just preliminary proposals. We're now, over the past week, starting to see some more finalized ideas coming out of the governor's office on ways to fund these programs. Part of the governor's new tax plan recommends periodic fare hikes on several transportation-related resources. His suggestions include ten percent increases every five years on RMV fees starting in 2016, five percent increases in tolls starting in 2015, and -- of course -- five percent fare hikes every two years on the MBTA starting in 2015.

The governor's plan also suggests tying the gas tax to the rate of inflation. Administration officials say the gas tax increase over the next eight years would be able to raise $118 million. If it were to pass, half a penny would immediately be tacked on to the already 21-cent-per-gallon tax. Also, the plan actually suggests lowering the sales tax down to 4.5 percent starting in 2014. The sales tax wouldn't change much in regard to what is taxed, but the report says that computer services and software "solutions" would now be considered goods, not services.

The income tax, however, would be upped to 6.25 percent. In a report by Michael Levenson of the Globe, he says these tax changes would affect approximately 50 percent of Massachusetts residents - mostly in the middle to upper classes.

The governor's budget chief, Glen Shor, says that the plan is a solid one that won't affect the working class, despite anti-tax sentiment growing in a time where the economy's already tough, and budgets already tight:

Shor countered that even though Patrick’s plan represents an overall tax increase, roughly half of taxpayers would see either a cut or no change in their taxes.

That is because Patrick is seeking to double the amount of earnings that are exempt from income taxes, going from the current $4,400 for a single person to $8,800. That means workers who earn $50,000 a year would pay income taxes on $41,200 of their income, exempt­ing a larger share of their paychecks from taxation than workers who earn, say, $150,000 a year.

Many in the state legislature, as well as conservative and anti-tax groups statewide, are looking at the plan cautiously. Republican representative Daniel Winslow says that this plan could be a bad move for the governor politically, but he also thinks people don't trust state government enough to use the funds wisely:

Winslow said voters do not believe that state government has eliminated enough waste and fraud to warrant the infusion of $1.9 billion in fresh tax money. “A part of the problem is that there is a lack of confidence,” he said.

Corporate tax benefits could also be in jeopardy -- $194 million in deductions could be eliminated under the plan.

So, despite all the wariness surrounding the plan, the governor's administration maintains that while nobody likes extra taxes, this plan could prove to be the way to solve our transportation and education funding problems - if all those taxes and changes are passed, we could see almost $2 billion in additional revenue per year.

Now, I'm not a tax blogger, nor do I intend on being one, nor do I have much experience in what taxes are beneficial and which ones not so much. I can tell you that some of the ideas in the governor's plan seem reasonable to me -- including tying the gas tax to inflation, consistent fare hikes on the T (so long as service continued to improve), and keeping the tolls in place on the Pike and Tobin Bridge. I also really like the ideas of automatic tolling and cutting expenses at the RMV by moving most processes online.

I can say, though, that I doubt raising the income tax will be an easy fight for the governor and his administration, even if you do drop the sales tax. The DOT and other agencies will have to fight hard to really convince the public that service will continue to improve with all of these new investments. While ridership is growing, confidence is not exactly the highest when it comes to the various branches of the MBTA and MBCR. These commitments need to be followed through with concrete timelines and strict budgets. No more Big Dig mess.

What am I looking forward to most? I would have to say expansion of the fleet of the Red, Orange, and Green Lines. Some of those cars need to be put to rest sooner than later. It would be nice to have a reliable fleet of trains that wouldn't break down quite so often. People would be able to trust the T a bit more often. I would also be curious to see exactly how the South Station expansion would look. High speed rail service between Boston and Springfield would be a fantastic way to start connecting Western Massachusetts to New York and Boston -- I know they've been working on rail through Hartford and New Haven to Springfield, so that would be a nice addendum. As for the roads, the 93 cloverleaf really needs some opening up. I'd be curious to see which bridges they'd like to replace with that Accelerated Bridge program, too.

Enough about me. What are your thoughts? About taxes, their priorities, if any of this is actually going to work... I want to know. Leave them in the comments below.
Commuters on 128 have been given a bit of a reprieve as of late, what with the opening of the fourth travel lane in both directions from Dedham to Randolph. However, there's a new wrench being thrown in the ongoing widening project for those who travel through Needham, and it starts up tonight.

A new traffic split will be put in place on the southbound side of 128 sometime this evening before Great Plain Avenue (Exit 18). Crews will start to do this after rush hour -- sometime around 7:00 is when they'll show up. What will happen is that the two left lanes will shift to the left, and the two right lanes will, well, shift to the right. That split will continue until you approach Exit 17, at which time the lanes will rejoin and you'll be back to your normal traffic pattern, already in progress.

If you're planning on getting off the highway at either Great Plain Avenue or Route 135 (at Exit 17), you'll have to stay right and travel through the lane split in those lanes -- the exits will not be available to you if you stay in the left lanes. The good news is that you'll still be able to use the active breakdown lane during approved hours.

Why's the split being put in place? Crews are working on a bridge over the Charles River that sits right at the Dedham-Needham line. It's all part of the widening project -- they're widening the bridge so they can fit another lane of traffic in each direction under it. No word on just how long the split will be in place, but I'll let you know as soon as I hear that they'll be picking it up.

MBTA Matters

The T has released their schedule for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this coming Monday, January 21:

  • Subway: all lines, including the Silver Line, will run on a Saturday schedule.

  • Commuter rail: all lines will operate on a weekday schedule.

  • Commuter boat: all lines will operate on a weekday schedule.

  • Buses: will run on a Saturday schedule, except for these lines, which will not be running: CT1, CT2, CT3, 4, 19, 52, 67, 68, 79, 84, 85, 114, 121, 131, 170, 217, 221, 245, 424, 424W, 428, 434, 439, 448, 449, 451, 456, 459, 502, 503, 505, 554, 556, 558.

  • The RIDE: will run on a Saturday schedule.

Of course, don't forget that there will be diversions in place this weekend on the Orange Line, as crews continue to work on the Assembly Square project. Riders will be bused from Sullivan Square to Oak Grove from the start of service Saturday to the end of service Sunday. Regular train service will return at the start of service Monday.

You'll find slowdowns here...

95 in both directions at Route 97 (Exit 53), Boxford: bridge inspection closes lanes on Tuesday from 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM.

Route 1 northbound before Route 16, Revere: pothole repair closes a lane on Saturday from 3:00 AM to 9:00 AM.

94 in both directions after Route 62 (Exit 40), Wilmington: bridge inspection will be taking place on Thursday from 8:00 PM to 4:00 AM.

Route 114 westbound at Shawmut Avenue, Danvers: utility work closes a lane Wednesday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM.

Route 130 at Route 6, Sandwich: road work closes lanes in both directions on Saturday from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

24 northbound between Route 139, Stoughton (Exit 20) and 128, Randolph: expect lane closures and a rough road surface due to ongoing paving work.

Route 128 in both directions between Route 135, Dedham (Exit 17) and Highland Avenue, Needham (Exit 19): continuous lane closures are in effect until further notice as part of the 128 widening project. Expect extra slowdowns, especially during mid-days, for work.

North Harvard Street over the Larz Anderson Bridge: Continual lane closures are in effect in both directions for bridge reconstruction work. No left turn onto Memorial Drive from JFK Street.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Nichole Davis is a Boston-based traffic reporter and news anchor. She’s been seen and heard on television and radio airwaves across New England since 2003, providing commuters with all the More »

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