Massachusetts governor calls for transportation funding boost

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Mass transit and the state's rainy-day fund were priorities as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker proposed his $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The plan provides $216.7 million more in funding for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and other organizations. The budget calls for a $135 million increase alone for the MBTA, which operates Greater Boston mass transit.

Baker has already filed an $18 billion transportation bond bill, borrowing against future revenues, with $11 billion earmarked for road and bridge improvements and $7 billion for additional expansion and modernization of transit, commuter rail and bus services.

“This will ensure the T has the resources it needs to implement the recommendations of its Safety Review Panel and continue to accelerate service improvements," Baker said. "Traffic is also a problem and it's no longer just at rush hour. Transportation network companies provide a valuable service, but they clog our roads and operate with very little oversight."

The safety panel, a group of transportation experts, released a 69-page report last month that cited deficiencies throughout the MBTA, some "troubling."

Baker, a second-term Republican who works with a heavily Democratic legislature, also reaffirmed his allegiance to the controversial Transportation Climate Initiative, which would impose a gas fee to reduce carbon emissions. Some New England neighboring states have been reluctant to support it. Baker wants Massachusetts to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The governor also proposed overhauling the MBTA's governing structure.

Baker, who along with the legislature created the five-member Fiscal and Management Control Board after the snow crisis early in 2015, would replace the five-member panel with one of seven members that would include his secretary of transportation and five other gubernatorial appointees.

At least one MBTA rider's advocate would serve on the board, with another slot to a municipal representative within the MBTA's 78-municipality system.

An aging public transportation system around Boston, frequent service breakdowns and overcrowding threaten to reverse economic growth around the capital city.

"Transportation has become an increasingly critical issue for people in Massachusetts," said the think tank Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. "Pressure on lawmakers has mounted in the face of subway system failures and derailments, worst-in-the-nation traffic congestion, and a safety scandal at the Registry of Motor Vehicles."

The $44.6 billion would represent a 2.3% increase over fiscal 2020 projected spending, excluding transfers to the Medical Assistance Trust Fund.

The governor, one day after his State of the Commonwealth speech in Boston, included a $310 million increase to the stabilization, or rainy-day fund, now with a record balance of $3.46 billion. That amount represents more than 10% of the amount of tax revenue collected in fiscal 2019.

"We are proud of our partnership with the legislature to increase the balance of the stabilization fund threefold since 2015, and this significant achievement will provide a substantial buffer for essential services in the event of a future economic downturn," Baker said.

In addition, the budget fully funds the first year of the Student Opportunity Act, adding $355 million. This includes $303.5 million in funding in Chapter 70 education aid to local cities and towns for a total allotment of nearly $5.5 billion.

The budget also recommends $328.3 million to combat the opioid epidemic.

Fitch Ratings rates the commonwealth's general obligation bonds AA-plus, while S&P Global Ratings and Moody's Investors Service rate them AA and Aa1, respectively.

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State budgets Charlie Baker Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts