Local-option transportation tax pitched on Beacon Bill

By Colin A. Young, State House News Service

Pointing to a need for greater investment in transportation infrastructure, state lawmakers and local officials on Monday renewed an effort to allow cities and towns to ask voters to authorize a local tax to pay for transportation projects.

The bill (H 1640 and S 1551) would allow municipalities to join a regional district or act on their own to establish payroll, sales, property, or vehicle excise taxes to fund transportation. Voters in the city or town would need to approve the taxes. The bill would require the authorization for local taxes to expire after 30 years and would allow for an earlier sunset.

"It essentially lays out the procedures and it gives local control to these issues instead of waiting for the process through the state, which sometimes can take decades," Rep. Chris Walsh told the Joint Committee on Revenue. "It is used very effectively in other states ... we feel that this, basically, is a key mechanism to fund these capital projects for transportation." Walsh said the bill establishes a maximum amount that new taxes could be raised and creates a lockbox to ensure that the revenue raised for transportation is spent only on transportation.

Among those who testified in support Monday were the Brookline High School Environmental Action Club, Transportation for Massachusetts, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and MassINC. No one testified in opposition on Monday.

Steve Koczela of MassINC Polling Group said his organization has asked voters five times since 2012 about regional transportation ballot initiatives and has found "a remarkably and widespread and stable level of support for the idea." Across the polls, between 70 and 81 percent supported the concept, he said. 

T will replace Red Line fleet

By Andy Metzger

BOSTON, DEC. 12, 2016...Scrapping plans to overhaul railcars that date back to the 1990s, the MBTA agreed Monday to replace its entire Red Line fleet by 2024 by purchasing an additional 120 to 134 cars at a cost of up to $280 million.

T officials presented the proposal to the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday and said it would be less expensive per car and more beneficial than their prior plan of making overhaul repairs to 84 Red Line cars.

The board approved the proposal unanimously on a voice vote.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told reporters the plan evidences a new way of doing business at the T.

"It represents what we've been trying to do with the MBTA. A different way of thinking, a different way of acting," Pollack said. She said the decision was the result of "working backwards from strategic targets" of shorter times between train arrivals.

The move would increase the MBTA's current order from Chinese railcar manufacturer CRRC, which is under a roughly $565 million contract to build 132 Red Line and 152 Orange Line cars at a facility in Springfield.

When all the new vehicles are on the system, the MBTA could run trains faster, significantly increasing capacity on the line running from Braintree to Cambridge during rush hour, MBTA Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gonneville said.

Red Line commuters frequently face jam-packed trains and service delays on their way to and from work.

The possibilities of a new fleet by 2024 were discussed during an MBTA Board meeting and briefing in September. At the time, officials said the MBTA's busiest subway line could transport an additional 10,000 passengers an hour and keep the time between trains to about three minutes if the agency upgraded the line's entire fleet. The 50 percent boost in capacity would mean less congestion, especially in the system's downtown Boston core, for the 150,000 riders who rely on the line each day, with demand on the rise as housing is built near Red Line stations in Quincy, Dorchester, and Cambridge.

The proposed new agreement with CRRC is for 120 new Red Line cars, which the company would start building right after completing the original order.

In total the new purchase would cost about $280 million, according to the T. The MBTA would also have the option of purchasing an additional 14 cars, which would vary in price, according to the T. Gonneville said the option gives the T "flexibility." Without taking the options, the Red Line would have a total of 252 new vehicles, including 42 spares, in 2024, he said.

By taking action now, the MBTA will lock in CRRC to get to work on the newly purchased Red Line cars right after completing the original order, Pollack said. Pollack said without acting quickly there was a risk CRRC would take a contract from another railcar customer and the T would need to wait for that work to be completed. She said buying directly from CRRC would avoid the cost and time spent on going out to bid and said the board has been briefed in closed-door executive sessions on legal implications of the move.

With more than 280,000 trips per weekday the Red Line is the busiest line on the MBTA. The 84 vehicles date to the mid-1990s and are the newest cars on the Red Line, according to MBTA data.