When Governor Deval Patrick stood before the Legislature and the people of Massachusetts last week to offer a bold proposal to raise $1 billion per year to fund critical investments in transportation, he struck a skillful balance between the pragmatic and the visionary, appealing to us as both taxpayers and investors in a thriving Commonwealth. The Governor asked his constituents to “Imagine if you could depend on a bus or subway that came on time, was safe and comfortable… if the Green Line ran to Medford and the commuter rail ran to Springfield,” among other improvements. He made sure to emphasize that everyone would benefit from a 21st century transportation system, whether they drive a car or take public transit, from one end of the state to the other. And he proposed that everyone pay their share, according to their ability.
It’s a good proposal and a badly needed one. The question now is how to get the buy-in we need to make it happen. Not surprisingly, it’s not too hard to find political opponents and citizens of the Commonwealth to speak out against the proposed tax increases. Who wants a tax increase? It’s like asking someone whether they want a root canal. But if you ask a person in that special dental pain whether she would be willing to pay a fair price to make it go away – indeed to be able to enjoy biting into a delicious crunchy apple —she would almost certainly agree that her investment would be worth it.
With Massachusetts’ transportation system so woefully underfunded for many decades, we are all in that special pain. Crumbling bridges, decaying train cars, vanishing bus routes and unfinished projects are daily reminders that we’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed. And we all have our own version of that delicious apple: our mode of transportation that gets us where we need to go, when we need to go, safely, reliably and affordably. The problem is that people want the pain to go away – indeed, they want the apple! – but, politicians fear, they don’t want to pay for it.
In fact, a MassINC poll conducted last year showed that 62% of people surveyed said that they would be willing to pay more than they are paying now to improve the transportation system – up to a point. So, maybe we should be asking people not whether they agree with the Governor’s proposal to raise taxes, but rather, whether they agree that a working transportation system is a worthwhile investment. More frequent trains. Easy connections between distant parts of the state. Fast access to the airport. And why stop there? What about cleaner air, less congested roads and more vibrant communities with thriving businesses and the jobs they bring? Let’s talk about the benefits, like the Governor started to do, and help the savvy taxpayer see how her investment will pay off – now and in the future. Our legislators need to hear from the transit champions. C’mon…we know you’re out there.