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On Election Day, voters from around the country showed Massachusetts how to prevent imminent fiscal train wrecks at both the Pike and the MBTA and to fund other transportation needs as well.
Specifically, in states where voters must approve tax hikes that fund new borrowing for capital projects, the electorate approved more than 80 percent of proposed measures that together will provide more than $50 billion for roads, trains, schools, libraries, parks, hospitals, sewers, and other forms of infrastructure. The successful measures included sales tax hikes for transit in both Los Angeles County and the Seattle metro area and property tax hikes for roads in Charlotte, Tulsa, and Denton County, Texas.
Because our state constitution neither requires nor allows such votes, Bay State voters won't get the chance to vote on a similar measure. But the state's elected officials still can learn four important lessons from the long history of successful - and occasionally unsuccessful - bond referenda from around the country.
First, while voters generally have approved tax hikes for transportation, they will reject plans that don't specify how the money will be spent. Second, they are likely to reject plans that primarily focus on serving downtown commuters. Third, they frequently reject measures that focus on a single mode. Finally, they are wary of giving money to entities that have a (real or perceived) history of management problems.
Illustratively, from the late 1960s until the early 1990s, voters in the Seattle region voted against several proposals to increase taxes to fund a new downtown-oriented rail transit system. Finally, in 1996, they approved such funding, but only as part of a package that also included money for other projects that would appeal to suburbanites who wouldn't be served by the new rail lines. These included money for expanded express bus service, new ramps to carpool lanes on highways, more commuter parking lots, and a provision requiring that each part of the region would get back most of the new revenues raised from that area's residents.
Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s voters in Los Angeles County rejected several measures that primarily would have funded new rail lines. Finally, in November 1980 they approved a measure that combined rail funding with two other provisions. To win support from poorer, inner-city residents who would not be served by the new rail lines, the package funded reductions in bus fares for at least three years. And to win suburbanites' support, it gave local governments money for - and the power to select - local road and bridge projects.
These experiences and similar histories in other locales strongly suggest that statewide tax hikes designed to help the MBTA and the Turnpike must be linked to firm commitments to pursue specified projects outside of the Boston core. Moreover, given the Big Dig's problems, the package also must address concerns that the state can neither correctly estimate the cost of major projects nor effectively oversee their construction.
Here the history of bond referenda offers more reasons for caution. New rail lines funded by referenda in Seattle and Los Angeles (and other locales) all cost significantly more than what was estimated when voters approved them.
One way to address these concerns would be to link new funding with the creation of an independent entity charged with reviewing cost and usage estimates for proposed projects, the management of projects that are being built, and the record of completed projects. This effort might draw on an innovative effort to systematically review cost estimates for proposed projects developed by the Washington State Department of Transportation when it was headed by Doug MacDonald, the former head of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which built the Deer Island sewage treatment plant on time and under budget.
Taken together, these approaches might break the dangerous gridlock over transportation funding in Massachusetts. Doing so will not be easy and some measures may well be controversial. But, the experiences of others suggest that this approach actually can work.