Tool to Crack Massachusetts’s Transportation Budget Nut

Rafael Mares | @RafaelMares2

BudgetCalc

On April 13, the Massachusetts Senate voted in favor of a $600 million per year transportation funding plan. But can that plan fund all of the challenges facing the Bay State’s transportation system? It’s a question many are asking, and few have the tools to answer.

That’s why we built the Transportation Budget Calculator. Follow this link to see how short this funding falls in the face of the state’s overwhelming transportation needs.

The plan that the Senate approved directs an average of $600 million per year to transportation. While the Senate bill is similar to the proposal previously approved by the House, it added roughly $100 million per year on average in revenue. This additional amount does not require raising any new taxes. Rather, the Senate bill redirects 2.5 cents per gallon from the gas tax that is currently committed to underground storage tank removal to the transportation sector. The Senate bill also calls for new revenues from the leasing of MBTA and MassDOT land to utilities.

A conference committee has formed to try and merge the House and Senate bills. There has been a lot of interest in understanding how much of its transportation challenges the Commonwealth would be able to tackle should legislation emerge that is consistent with the revenue that the Senate bill raises.

The Senate bill raises sufficient revenue to correct some of the Commonwealth’s most egregious financial practices born out of the necessity to fill budget holes created by chronic underfunding. This includes ending the terrible practice of paying for costs associated with the operation of our transportation system with bonds.

The bill also includes about $100 million per year on average for capital projects. This number could be significantly lower depending on two factors: first, whether the bill’s growth projections for payroll and benefits come to pass or not; and second, whether it is realistic for the MBTA to be able to meet the bill’s underlying projections about how much money the agency can raise on its own. Regardless, this amount, unfortunately, cannot resolve all of the infrastructure challenges of our transportation system.

To get a sense of the challenge facing the committee, try our new Transportation Budget Calculator. Using the revenue provided by the Senate bill, the calculator allows you to pick state of good repair and expansion projects off of a project list and will inform you if you can afford the projects you have selected or not.

It’s may not be as exciting as your favorite video game, but you can still enjoy the ride (if you can afford to build the road or the track)!

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3 Responses to “Tool to Crack Massachusetts’s Transportation Budget Nut”

  1. tg gates

    While your “details” sections are interesting, there appears to be no way to “copy” them for on-going reference – which is nuisance.

    Re MBTA improvements, I would like to suggest that the Rockport Branch bridge replcement over the Annisquam River/”cut” be re-designed to be a single track structure while retaining the current two-track approaches to stack trains that have to wait for opposing tains to clear the drawbridge area [needed in case of unscheduled delays in one or the other directions.

    The single-track tunnel under downtown Salem provides an excellent precedent for such a single -track section of the Rockport, and Newburyport, lines.

    TG Gates

  2. Emily Long

    Hi TG,

    Thanks for your comment. Due to the nature of the design, it’s difficult to make the pop-ups on the web app “copyable”. Most of the project descriptions come straight from MassDOT’s The Way Forward, which you can find online here: http://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/0/docs/infoCenter/docs_materials/TheWayForward_Jan13.pdf

    The Introduction text is copied below. Please feel free to shoot any other questions my way!

    Thanks,
    Emily

    —-
    Instructions
    Select from the following capital projects, additional operations funding, and revenue assumptions you would like to see included and see how much you have left in your budget in each fiscal year.
    1. Select the road, highway, bike/ped, and transit projects you would like to see funded. (A description of each project or choice will pop up if you move your mouse over the word “details,” which appears next to each item.)
    2. Select any additional funding you would like to make available for the fifteen regional transit authorities (RTAs) around the state and/ or for the MBTA to expand service.
    3. Choose which revenue assumptions you would like to make.
    4. See how much money you have left in your budget in each fiscal year. (If you are over budget for a particular year, the dollar amount will appear in red, but you may continue to add projects so you can see how much additional funding you would need.)

    Assumptions
    The calculator is based on the following assumptions:
    1. You have access to the following funding:

    • Revenues from the Senate bill (S.1770) that aren’t allocated to fill operations gaps and other needs.
    • Existing funding already set aside in the existing Commonwealth Capital Plan for capital investments.
    • All dollars freed up by phasing out the funding of MassDOT’s daily operations with bonds between FY14 and FY16.

    2. The Green Line Extension and South Coast Rail (to a lesser extent) are already partially funded in the Commonwealth Capital Plan. The debt service you are required to pay for out of the unallocated funds has therefore been reduced for these projects accordingly.

    Limitations of Calculator
    All of the underlying numbers for this calculator were taken from spreadsheets provided by the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the MassDOT pro forma. The following information was unavailable for this calculator:
    • There are no official revenue projections from the Senate bill for fiscal years FY19 and FY20. We nevertheless included these years in the calculator, so that you can see how much money would have to be raised from existing and new revenue to fund the projects you have selected. The total debt service cost for those years appears in blue rather than red.
    • There are many other critical transportation projects, such as the Red Line/Blue Line Connector, the Urban Ring, and Silver Line Phase III, which have not been included in the calculator because sufficient cost information by fiscal year is unavailable.
    • The calculator does not include the cost of any additional employees at MassDOT which may be needed to complete the capital projects you have selected.

  3. Bill Basford

    Hello at CLF,

    Rather than discuss the state’s transportation budget as if it existed in splendid isolation, it can be helpful to compare it to other transportation expenditures. For example, if we assume seven motor vehicles for each ten residents (the national average is closer to eight), roughly six million residents, and an average annual cost of $9000 per vehicle (according to AAA), the total cost of Massachusetts’ highway and auto based transportation system is in the range of $38 Billion per year. This sum makes the state’s transportation budget look like pocket change by comparison.

    Some people may think that all this money changing hands is good for the Massachusetts economy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because none of these motor vehicles are built in the state, and because Massachusetts has relatively few auto parts plants, and no oil wells or refineries, probably 80% of this money leaves the state each year. So roughly $30 Billion is drained from the Massachusetts economy each year, yet no one in state government seems even remotely aware of this huge problem.

    If the State government wants to reduce it’s long term budget problems by improving the economy, instead of just cutting the State budget, the best approach would be to make it easier for more people to live in Massachusetts without a car. Note that there is no need to discourage people from buying cars. The continuing high cost of fuel, combined with falling median incomes will easily take care of that.

    I’ve been giving public talks on this topic in Maine for the past year and a half, and I’m confident that most of the issues that I mention would apply equally well in Massachusetts. If you would like to know more about this approach, I’d be happy to discuss it further with you in person, either up here in Maine, or in Boston (if you can cover my travel expenses).

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