Gap remains in state Senate’s transportation infrastructure

Political News

BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–Crushing traffic has returned to Massachusetts roadways after a pandemic lull, the MBTA trimmed this month bus service due to a driver shortage, and the Baker administration’s keystone plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector is dead.

And as the act of getting around Massachusetts in a timely manner continues to create headaches for commuters and for policymakers, Senate leaders have gone more than three months without delegating a lawmaker to lead the chamber’s work on transportation issues.

Senate President Karen Spilka has neither named a new Senate chair to the Transportation Committee nor outlined a timeline for doing so since the most recent person to hold that title, former Sen. Joe Boncore, resigned on Sept. 10. A spokesperson told the News Service that Spilka still has not decided whether she will officially tap a senator to head up the committee or if Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat who serves as its vice chair, will continue to handle leadership duties.

Keenan said he is now working “more closely” with the committee’s House chair, Rep. William Straus, “to ensure that the Joint Committee on Transportation continues to process the 361 important bills under its jurisdiction.” “I have been busy reviewing the bills, chairing hearings, meeting with advocates, and working with committee members, legislators, and the Administration to ensure that the local and broader transportation infrastructure needs and goals of the Commonwealth are met,” Keenan said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing this work as we move through the legislative session.”

For Straus, the current setup mirrors the committee’s work after former Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Tom McGee resigned in January 2018 to become mayor of Lynn. In that case, though, Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler selected Boncore as the panel’s next leader within weeks of McGee’s departure.

“All I can offer is that the committee has continued to have hearings and report bills since Joe Boncore left,” Straus wrote in an email to the News Service. “I work regularly with Senate Vice Chair Keenan on committee matters. This is actually the way I first worked during this kind of situation when Tom McGee left to become mayor of Lynn and then vice chair Boncore stepped in.” Since Boncore departed for a high-paying lobbying job leading the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Transportation Committee has held three hearings to air legislation under its purview.

The panel has advanced only a handful of major bills this session, including an annual road funding package and a proposal to require public transit agencies to offer free rides on statewide election days, the latter of which remains tied up in each branch’s Ways and Means Committee. But at the halfway point of the two-year lawmaking session, and with the biennial deadline to make decisions on most bills 37 days away, the Transportation Committee has not acted to send other high-profile matters into the larger legislative arena.

A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to acquire standard driver’s licenses (H 3456 / S 2289), which the panel advanced last session on a party-line 14-4 vote, remains unmoved this time around, as do Gov. Charlie Baker proposals dealing with seatbelt enforcement (H 3706) and drugged driving (H 4255) that received hearings.

Another issue the committee has left mostly untouched this session: new revenues to boost funding for the state’s sometimes unreliable public transit systems and aging highway infrastructure. Debate on that topic dominated Beacon Hill in late 2019 and the House approved a sweeping package in March 2020 that would have increased the state’s gas tax, corporate minimum excise tax, and fees on ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.

The Senate allowed that proposal, which House Democrats projected would bring in more than half a billion dollars per year, to die without a vote after COVID-19 took over nearly all attention on Beacon Hill. Since then, neither branch has revived interest in the issue. “We just did a $16 billion bond authorization,” Spilka said in September, referring to a transportation borrowing bill that did become law. “I’m not certain that there is the capacity to do more. $16 billion is larger than, if I remember correctly, any one appropriation by the Legislature. So I’m not certain that there’s a need for even more money. I have not heard that from a single person.”

Voters are set in November 2022 to decide whether to impose a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million per year. That question’s text calls for the new revenue to go to transportation and education, though opponents contend the tax, if passed, would fund general government spending.

Lawmakers and Baker agreed this year to create a permanent MBTA Board of Directors to succeed the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which dissolved at the end of June, but Baker took more than three months to appoint members to the new panel, drawing criticism over the pace of action amid multiple incidents at the T.

Spilka’s decision about the Transportation Committee chair position carries financial ramifications. A 2017 law guarantees the House and Senate chairs of the Transportation Committee a $30,000 stipend in addition to their base pay, while the House vice chair gets a $15,000 stipend and the Senate vice chair receives a $5,200 stipend. All of those stipends are subject to cost-of-living increases, and the Senate clerk told the News Service on Monday that the Senate vice chair position on the Transportation Committee currently carries a $5,908 stipend.

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