BOSTON (SHNS) – A coalition that has long called for increasing investment in the MBTA has its eye on the income surtax voters will decide in less than three weeks, pitching it as a viable source of funding for the under-fire agency while calling out billionaire Robert Kraft’s spending in opposition to the measure.
Drawing on input from organized labor leaders and other advocates, the Public Transit Public Good coalition argues in a new report obtained by the News Service that the proposal to tax personal income above $1 million at a higher rate represents an opportunity to secure a new dedicated revenue stream for the T, which could help close budget gaps and ramp up safety-critical outlays.
The MBTA might feel pressure to trim service or raise fares as it works to implement necessary changes ordered by the Federal Transit Administration, which warned in a scathing investigation that the T is 1,500 to 2,000 employees short of the workforce it needs to maintain its current level of activity.
While the Public Transit Public Good coalition said the added transportation revenue from the surtax will not allow the T to eliminate fares or its reliance on dedicated funding from the state’s sales tax, the group argued it would create a new pool of resources “by taxing the super-wealthy to advance the public good.”
“The MBTA does not have enough funding for the maintenance and repair of the existing assets,” authors wrote. “While the MBTA clearly needs new policies and leadership that will prioritize worker and rider safety, needed changes will not be possible at current funding levels. In addition to the many costs of keeping a large public transit system running, the MBTA operating budget covers payments on debt interest and principle, dating back to debt transferred to the Authority in the wake of the ‘Big Dig.’ For decades, the debt costs have threatened the MBTA.”
In addition to its annual state allocation, lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker have injected the MBTA with $666 million so far in one-time funding to make the safety improvements requirement by the FTA’s investigation, and millions more could flow to the agency through a stalled closeout budget bill.
House and Senate Democrats have opted not to return to longer-term MBTA funding questions in the months since the Senate spiked a House-approved package of transportation tax and fee hikes in 2020.
“Instead of trying to squeeze more fares out of riders who are already struggling to pay, it’s time for multi-millionaires to pitch in,” said Jim Evers, president of Carmen’s Union Local 589 that represents MBTA workers, in a quote in the report. “Passing Fair Share could be a turning point in making sure the MBTA has what we need to have a safe and efficient system.”
Kraft, often in the spotlight as owner of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution, has himself been quiet about the proposal, but his company Rand-Whitney Containerboard in May donated $1 million to the campaign seeking to sink the ballot question.
Public Transit Public Good authors juxtaposed that contribution with the role that the MBTA plays in delivering fans and patrons to the Patriots and Kraft’s other business interests around Gillette Stadium.
For decades, the coalition said, the MBTA ran special commuter rail service to Foxborough only for football games and special events. Kraft’s team and Baker pushed for expanded weekday commuter rail service to Foxborough, whose station is adjacent to Gillette Stadium and the Patriot Place mall.
The T started a pilot in October 2019, canceled it the following year when COVID-19 hit, and then last month revived a new year-long pilot featuring 10 weekday round trips between Foxborough and Boston. Public Transit Public Good pointed out that Patriots cheerleaders greeted passengers and a Kraft Group spokesperson praised the program on its first day.
“The celebration makes you wonder — why would Kraft oppose a new tax that could help keep the trains that serve his customers safe and well-maintained?” Public Transit Public Good wrote. “Maybe it’s because he’s more interested in profiting from the MBTA than in paying his fair share.”
A Kraft Group spokesperson declined to elaborate on Kraft’s stance about the surtax following his company’s donation to the opposition campaign.
In response to the Public Transit Public Good’s criticism, the Kraft Group spokesperson said Patriot Place operated for more than 10 years before the T expanded service to Foxborough and that Kraft is paying a “six-figure” sum to help fund the pilot program.
Opponents of the income surtax, who have also received sizable donations from New Balance Chairman Jim Davis and Suffolk Construction owned by John Fish, argue that the policy could drive higher earners to flee Massachusetts and trip up some small business owners who pay personal income tax rather than corporate taxes.
The coalition’s desire to snag surtax funds for the MBTA hints as some of the battles to come if Question 1 is approved, which would unleash a competition for the new revenues among myriad education interests as well as those seeking investments in transportation outside of the MBTA region.
Analysts say the higher rate on top earners could generate $1.3 billion per year in new revenue, and the text of the ballot question calls for the money to be steered toward education and transportation needs.
However, the proposal does not guarantee that the new funding for education and transportation will supplement existing allocations, and legislative leaders might choose to redirect current appropriations elsewhere and replace them with surtax money.
“Even if every dime from this surtax goes to education and transportation as the proponents intend, it doesn’t mean that the Legislature has to continue spending what they currently appropriate on education and transportation,” Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny, who opposes the ballot question, said during a debate last week. “As you all know, money is fungible. So the money from this can be guaranteed for education and transportation, but it’s not additive.”
The coalition plans to host a rally with workers and riders in support of the ballot question at Faneuil Hall on Tuesday.