2/25/20 5:58 PM
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 25, 2020.....The Baker administration's $18 billion transportation bond bill is on the move again.
Lawmakers on the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets advanced a version of the bill (H 4397) in an executive session Tuesday immediately following a hearing and less than three weeks after a different version emerged from the Transportation Committee. In the process, the Bonding Committee amended the legislation to expand several of the grant programs funded in the multi-year borrowing proposal.
With the release of a separate transportation revenue bill appearing imminent, the bonding bill — a key focus of the Baker administration — now moves before the House Ways and Means Committee.
"This is a big priority for many folks here in the building," Rep. Antonio Cabral, the Bonding Committee's chair, told the News Service after the unanimous committee vote. "This piece of legislation, this bond bill, will touch every corner of the commonwealth. It will be the tool that will help us start to do some of the things we need to do, not only in the Boston area, but in other regions of the state."
Cabral said he was not sure when the transportation bond bill would come to the floor for a vote, declining to speculate how long Ways and Means would take to review it.
The Legislature's Transportation Committee reported out its own version of the bill this month, keeping in place most of the proposed borrowing authorization, but stripping several proposals for a work-from-home tax credit, allocation of revenue from a cap-and-trade program, and expanded authorization for Baker to convert state bonds to grant anticipation notes.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver and MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore testified for more than an hour about the many programs supported by the bill before it advanced, asking lawmakers to restore the eliminated sections.
The wide-reaching, redrafted legislation is based on a proposal Gov. Charlie Baker filed in July, and seeks authorization to borrow $18 billion over a multi-year period to fund road and bridge repair programs, MBTA improvements, and regional transit authority electrification.
Two MassDOT "mega-projects," the Allston multimodal construction and the renovation of approaches to the two Cape Cod Canal bridges, would receive "critically important down payments" through the bond bill, Pollack said.
About $5.7 billion would go to the MBTA, some of which would help pay for already-underway projects such as South Coast Rail and the Green Line Extension.
When they reported their version, lawmakers on the Transportation Committee removed language that would have directed half of future revenue from the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a multi-state pact still under negotiation to cap vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, toward public transit. Rep. William Straus, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said at the time that the Legislature could not allocate something that "doesn't exist," and the Bonding Committee left that language out of the bill.
Both committees eliminated Baker's proposal for a program, capped at $50 million per year, to offer businesses tax credits of $2,000 per employee who works from home in an effort to cut down on congestion.
Chris Dempsey, executive director of the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy group, praised that decision Tuesday, telling lawmakers the $50 million "will be better spent improving our transportation system."
The transportation panel also omitted reforms to some contracting and procurement policies sought by the MBTA.
"Especially in the next few years, the absence of project delivery and procurement tools may actually be more of an impediment to expedited investment than lack of capital," Pollack said.
While Pollack requested the House Bonding Committee restore those components before advancing the bill, she also used her testimony to stress the need for action on several other administration priorities that complement efforts to address roadway and transit needs.
Transportation issues, she said, are so closely intertwined with environmental and housing goals that the Legislature will need to take up several other proposals — including Baker's long-sought change to local zoning reform thresholds and higher fees on ride-hailing services — to maximize outcomes.
"We will never achieve the goal of net-zero emissions that the administration and House and Senate leadership have set without creating a decarbonized transportation system over the next three decades, nor can we fix transportation without addressing the commonwealth's persistent and debilitating shortage of housing production," Pollack said.
On the same day that administration officials testified about the borrowing request, rating agency Fitch Ratings affirmed an A+ rating on $743 million in outstanding senior revenue bonds from MassDOT and its predecessor, the Metropolitan Highway System.
Tuesday's vote also comes as the House draws closer to unveiling and debating significant transportation funding legislation. Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday progress on that effort would be made "sooner rather than later."
Asked for her thoughts on new revenues, Pollack told reporters, "We've put together a very comprehensive approach. We support increasing the fees on transportation network companies, we support increasing the deeds excise tax in order to invest more in resiliency of the system. But we think with those two additional revenue sources and the bonding ability we've asked for in this bill, we'll be able to provide the billions of dollars of investment the system needs."
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