BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts lawmakers will need to start virtually from scratch on a string of transportation policy priorities Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed last month.
While Baker approved most of the borrowing and spending in a roughly $16.5 billion transportation bond bill, he slashed language that would have ramped up fees on ride-hailing services, forced the MBTA to implement a low-income fare program, and convened a commission to study congestion pricing.
Because they took until the dying hours of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session to send the bill (H 5248) to Baker, the Legislature had no ability to override his vetoes. Now they have to start over again.
The rejections frustrated advocates, lawmakers and at least one prominent MBTA official, though they might not last through the new session.
Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore, one of the lead negotiators on the bill who has been hinting at proposing a major new transportation package, said in an interview that he believes the vetoed items that already cleared both branches are “ready” to resurface without significant delay.
“What we’ve agreed on and what there’s consensus on between the House and Senate, something like TNC fees and data collection, is something that we don’t have to do a lot of planning around,” he said. “That’s ready, so I’m hoping that in the short term, we can take action on those items quickly.”
Boncore’s counterpart chairing the Transportation Committee, Rep. William Straus, did not respond to requests for comment.
The House and Senate, both overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, are coming off a difficult session on the transportation front. Not only were Democrats unable to have their way on key policy matters in the bond bill, but they also never got on the same page on taxes and fees, after the House approved a revenue bill last March.
Legislative leaders have already revived and re-approved a climate change bill that matches one that Baker vetoed after the Legislature had ended its two-year session. However, the odds on when they might revive the transportation proposals, which are now divorced from the borrowing bill, are longer and less clear.
In the view of several advocates, Baker’s decision to strike down sizable fee hikes on services such as Uber and Lyft — an idea the governor himself proposed, albeit with smaller increases — and a mandatory low-income fare program cast a blow to other priorities his administration has targeted, such as achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“For a governor who really prides himself on his business chops, he’s not making good short-term or long-term decisions for the state in terms of dollars and cents,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, citing Baker’s climate targets. “Those solutions require policy changes, they require spending money, they require changing the way we proverbially do business in the state.”
“I see a lot of lip service, I see a lot of commissions, I see a lot of reports,” Thompson added. “I don’t see a lot of action.”
Baker’s vetoes even frustrated one of his appointees, MBTA and Department of Transportation board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who called his decision to scrap several provisions “heart-breaking.”
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Tibbits-Nutt said the bonding elements of the bill are important but that the items vetoed “won’t potentially make it back onto a legislative agenda for several years.”
She said that roadway congestion, deemed worst in the nation before the pandemic, will remain a problem in the “new normal” regardless of whether working from home takes on a larger role.
Tibbits-Nutt also criticized Baker’s decision to veto a mandatory low-income fare program at the T, a topic the agency has studied but not yet fully embraced, and steps toward similar offerings at the state’s 15 regional transit authorities.
“Agencies throughout the country have made means-tested fare programs work,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “Here in MA, we have debated. We have studied. We continued to debate & study. Without an actual commitment to action, we will just continue debating & studying. Meanwhile, we are missing an essential opportunity to make our transit system genuinely more equitable.”
Baker justified many of his vetoes by pointing to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that many of the bill’s original assumptions “have changed dramatically” amid shifted travel patterns.
Since the highly infectious virus upended public life last March, many white-collar employees have shifted to remote work rather than daily commutes in and out of offices, while ridership on public transit cratered. On the MBTA, crowds continue to hover around 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels almost a year later.
He said the Legislature’s proposal to hike fees on ride-hailing services relied on now-outdated expectations and were too “complicated.”
“Before instituting fees that are aimed at incentivizing certain travel behaviors, we need to understand what ridership and congestion patterns are going to look like after the pandemic,” Baker wrote in his signing and veto letter.
Lawmakers might have avoided the hard reset if they had been able to find consensus faster. They sent differing versions of the transportation bond bill into private conference committee negotiations in late July, but it did not emerge until the final day of the 2019-2020 lawmaking session.
The House and Senate normally have the power to override any gubernatorial veto, but once a new two-year session starts, that option closes — so by approving the bill so late in the session, lawmakers effectively ceded the final decision entirely to Baker.
Advocates are split on how much blame the Legislature bears.
Thompson said while she would have preferred for lawmakers to give themselves enough time for veto overrides, she believes “we have two bodies that made the right choice and made the right votes, and then we have an administration that made the wrong choice and actively made a veto.”
Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of TransitMatters, was more critical.
“There was a lot of great stuff in the bond bill and the folks in the Legislature did great work with that, but there’s no excuse for leaving it to the last minute where you have no control over what the governor vetoes,” he said.
Johnson and Thompson both said they want the Legislature to make another push for items that were vetoed, with Johnson adding that lawmakers should find a funding source to support low-income fares.
“Folks like me, folks like (Transportation for Massachusetts), are already knocking on their doors,” Thompson said of lawmakers. “Congestion is coming back. These problems haven’t gone away because the governor vetoed some of these solutions.”
Other items left on the table or punted last session could factor into the current cycle, too. The House in March approved a set of tax and fee increases aimed at increasing transportation investment, but the Senate never took up the matter, arguing it did not fit during a pandemic.
Boncore did not say definitively how the Senate would approach transportation revenues this time around.
“We’re going to build legislation that has good policy and makes the system in a goal-oriented way more sustainable, more equitable and more equitable for riders,” he said. “If we need to raise appropriate money to get to those ends, we will.”
The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board is set to expire on June 30 after lawmakers gave it a one-year extension last summer, which means its oversight of the agency could evaporate amid a period of significant service changes and a budget crunch navigated with federal stimulus.
In his fiscal year 2022 budget proposal, Baker included language creating a new, seven-member MBTA board of directors to succeed the FMCB.
Beyond that, the priorities are less clear. Boncore, whose branch squashed the House revenue package, has been working on what he calls a “Transportation New Deal.”
He declined to offer details while his office is in the “planning stages,” saying it would “speak to governance, major policy reforms and making investments to make the system more sustainable and equitable.”
“A lot of the policies will involve improving and modernizing the system, because that’s just necessary to our economy and necessary to our recovery, moving people in and around so people themselves can recover from this public health crisis and have access to hospitals to get vaccinations,” Boncore said.