Downing eyes higher taxes to make bus rides, MBTA free

Massachusetts
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BOSTON (SHNS) – With about a year until Democratic primary voters cast ballots for governor, candidate Ben Downing on Tuesday set off on a two-week tour that will see him ride buses, trains and ferries to sell an expansive new transportation agenda that includes fare-free public transit by the end of his first term, East-West rail connecting Boston to Albany and the complete electrification of the commuter rail system.

The East Boston resident and former state senator from the Berkshires said he would pay for the improvements with federal COVID-19 stimulus funding and a bevy of new taxes and fees, including an income surtax on millionaires, congestion pricing in Greater Boston and higher gas taxes.

“As income inequality deepens, infrastructure crumbles, traffic congestion soars, and our climate changes, we all see and pay the cost of Beacon Hill’s failure to invest in our transportation needs,” Downing said. “As Governor, I won’t kick the can any further down the road.”

Downing rolled out his plan at the Blue Line station in Orient Heights, followed by a ride on the 28 bus from Mattapan to Dudley Station in Roxbury. He also has events planned this week in Worcester, Lee and Springfield, and next week in Hingham, Attleboro, Lowell, Lawrence and Fall River.

The push to eliminate fares on public transit would start with buses that serve higher percentages of people of color. Downing said all MBTA and regional transit authority bus fares would be free by the end of his first year in office, and by the end of his first term he said all MBTA fares would be free, including the commuter rail and ferry services.

“I’m prioritizing fare-free MBTA+RTA buses first because it’s an effective way to deliver equitable transit services to our most vulnerable residents,” Downing said in tweet sharing a video from outside the Orient Heights station.

Downing also promised to boost funding for regional transit authorities (RTAs) to $200 million annually, and said he would give different parts of the state the option to raise locally assessed taxes to fund specific projects through regional ballot initiatives. The funding and projects would be managed by newly appointed regional transportation commissions.

In addition to some of the nearly $5 billion in available American Rescue Plan Act funds and tax revenue that would be generated by a “millionaires’ tax” if approved by voters next year, Downing said he would propose a gas tax increase of between 10 cents and 15 cents, a new sales tax on Uber and Lyft rides and peak-hour congestion pricing in metro Boston.

While Downing said a fee of 6.25 percent for single riders and 4.25 percent for ride shares on services like Uber and Lyft would generate $22 million annually in new revenue, the Democrat did not put a specific price tag on the policies he proposed, or indicate exactly how much new revenue he expected to generate from his proposals.

Downing wasn’t the only candidate for governor coming right out of the gate after Labor Day with a major new policy proposal. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz released an education plan that included publicly funded pre-school and a cap on family child care expenses.

Downing has similarly suggested using money from the “millionaires’ tax” to limit families’ out-of-pocket child care expenses, though that tax has not yet been approved. Voters next year will decide whether to impose a 4 percent surtax on income over a $1 million through an amendment to the state’s Constitution, and it has been estimated to be worth up to $2 million annually.

For Downing, this was his campaign’s fourth major policy proposal, following the release of detailed plans to address climate change, poverty and child care.

Downing was the first of the three Democrats running for governor to get into the 2022 race, and the field is far from settled with Attorney General Maura Healey expected to make a decision about her future this fall. Democrats are also still wondering if their nominee will have to run against Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, former state legislator Geoff Diehl, or someone else.

Baker has supported raising fees on Uber and Lyft rides, but has said he does not support raising tax rates or implementing congestion pricing to pay for investments in transportation.

Diehl, meanwhile, led the effort to repeal a law that briefly indexed the states’ 24-cent gas tax to inflation.

Downing’s campaign cited a recent study conducted by graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government that estimated the cost of maintaining the state’s car economy to be $64.1 billion, with more than half – or $35.7 billion – coming from public investments.

With taxpayers already paying $14,000 per household annually regardless of whether they drive, Downing said it was time to prioritize investments in “our transportation infrastructure as inextricably linked to our efforts on climate action, economic justice, and racial equity.”

Under Downing’s plan, all MBTA commuter rail lines would be electrified by 2030, starting with the lines serving Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan; Brockton and the South Shore; and Chelsea, Lynn and the North Shore.

He also committed in his plan to completing East-West rail by 2030. The rail project would connect Boston with Albany, and run through Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield.

Citing his own experiences with flooding on the Blue Line, Downing also said that he would ensure that a majority of the members appointed to the MBTA board ride the T and live in environmental justice communities, and he pledged to appoint at least one transportation climate expert.

The membership of the new MBTA board is currently only required to have at least one T rider and environmental justice community resident as a member.

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