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Tab for transit fixes soaring

State needs $15b for rail, highway, and bridge projects, panel warns

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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More than $15 billion in repairs and replacements are needed to keep the state’s aging highway, bridge, and transit network in sound condition, an independent advisory committee warned yesterday.

In the Boston area alone, the day-to-day costs of operating the city’s decrepit subway, rail, and bus lines are so overwhelming that riders should expect a substantial fare increase, the first in five years, the top transportation official in Massachusetts said.

“We should be talking about at least a modest fare increase,’’ Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said yesterday, with the MBTA facing a projected $161 million deficit for the coming year. “Unfortunately, it’s likely that it won’t be modest to close the gap.’’

The highway system is also in trouble, being so far in debt that it must borrow to meet basic operating expenses, such as $145 million in payroll, rent, highway striping, and other annual costs, according to yesterday’s presentation.

“If we fund our mowing and striping program with bonds, then in year 19 you’re still paying for that mowing program you did in 2012,’’ said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee. The committee is a roundtable of academics, activists, business leaders, engineers, and strategists who advise the transportation secretary.

The panel’s finance subcommittee offered stark findings yesterday that many officials in the room already understood: The state’s transportation system has too much debt and too little revenue, and the picture is arguably bleaker than it was in 2007, when the Legislature received a landmark report on the state of the system.

“We don’t have a lot of good news,’’ said Stephen J. Silveira, lead author of that 2007 report and a member of the current Transportation Advisory Committee. “The title of the [2007] report was ‘An Unsustainable System.’ It brings me no joy to report in 2011 we still have an unsustainable system.’’

The meeting yesterday was hardly a celebration of the legislation enacted on Beacon Hill two years ago to consolidate the state’s myriad transportation agencies into one department, an act hailed by lawmakers and the governor as sweeping reform.

That work, which grew out of the 2007 report, yielded real improvements, including about $125 million a year in savings from consolidation, said Silveira, a former Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority executive who is now senior vice president of the government relations firm ML Strategies.

But those savings pale in comparison with maintenance needs of about $4.5 billion at the T, revised from $3 billion four years ago, and well over $10 billion for the highway and bridge system, which is in the midst of a program to better quantify its needs.

Silveira said the nascent department has had some success, including overseeing a $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program, paid for with borrowed funds, to address a few hundred bridges that had been neglected for decades. That included an innovative “Fast 14’’ project to replace 14 overpasses on Interstate 93 in one summer using precast elements, instead of building them in place and disrupting traffic for several years.

But the new department was not given the revenue needed to address a vast backlog of work and ease itself off its reliance on borrowing, Silveira said.

Seventy-four cents out of every $1 in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund - where the state gas tax, Registry of Motor Vehicles fees, and a portion of the sales tax are deposited - gets drained for debt payments.

“If 74 percent of your money is going to pay for yesterday’s projects, it should not be a surprise that you don’t have enough money for today, and you would be delusional to think you have enough money for tomorrow,’’ Silveira said.

Making matters worse, Congress is contemplating a one-third cut to the aid it provides to states for highway and transit projects, said John M. Pourbaix Jr., executive director of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts.

Those in the room yesterday, including Davey, seemed to agree that the state must raise more money if it is to maintain, much less expand, a transportation system essential to the Massachusetts economy and quality of life.

“The resources have to come from somewhere,’’ Davey said afterward. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that reform is not enough to sustain the current system.’’

But that message reverberates less emphatically on Beacon Hill, where a recommendation in the 2007 report to raise the state gas tax for the first time since 1991 - meaning it has not just held steady, but lost buying power amid inflation - was endorsed by Governor Deval Patrick but rejected by lawmakers.

Instead, the Legislature approved an increase in the sales tax in 2009, directing some of it to transportation, but sales tax receipts have not met expectations.

Patrick told reporters last week that his administration is contemplating a new transportation finance plan, but is reluctant to try again with the gas tax.

State Senator Thomas M. McGee, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation, said that committee members understand the magnitude of the problem and the need to raise money for transportation, but that tax increases remain unpopular on Beacon Hill and with the public.

“We really are facing a huge crisis,’’ said McGee, a Lynn Democrat, who did not attend yesterday’s meeting. His committee has begun to hold field hearings around the state to talk with the public about local needs and how they fit into the wider state picture. That is part of what he called an essential public conversation that must precede any tax increase.

“I think it needs to happen,’’ he said. “I don’t know if you laid out a number of revenue options tomorrow there’d be the support to say, ‘do that.’ There’s a recognition of, ‘We need this money.’ It’s how do we get all the people to the table to say, let’s find this money to move us in a better direction?’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.