GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Thursday reversed course and approved an $8 million funding increase for regional transit authorities but refused to support a pilot program to see if cutting tolls at off-peak times would entice enough drivers to shift their commutes to reduce traffic congestion at peak periods.
The governor had initially recommended $80 million for the state’s 15 regional authorities – a sum that represented no increase in spending over last year. But under pressure from transit advocates and Senate leaders he went along with a spending level of $88 million that was accompanied by a number of initiatives to improve operations and accountability of the authorities.
Matt Casale, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, applauded Baker for supporting the regional transit authorities. “Most of the new funding is contingent upon agreements with MassDOT,” he said in a statement. ”In the short term, this means some of the currently proposed service cuts will still have to go into effect. In the long run, we are optimistic that the pieces are in place to build a public transportation system that works for all of Massachusetts,.”
Baker sent the congestion pricing pilot proposal back to the Legislature with an amendment calling for his own Transportation Department to do a study by June 30 of possible options for reducing roadway congestion. The congestion pilot proposal was inserted into the budget by the Senate, which wanted to see if a reduction in toll prices at off-peak periods would lure people with flexible travel plans to delay their trips and thereby ease congestion at peak commuting times.
“While I support the idea of reducing congestion on our roads, this section proposes a program that is too narrow and unlikely to have the desired effect of alleviating congestion. It would be better to evaluate all of the potential solutions to this problem and then pursue the solutions that are most likely to achieve the best results,” Baker said in his veto message.
Baker gave mixed signals on the issue last week, hinting a minor price differential between peak and off-peak prices might be acceptable but suggesting a bigger difference could be viewed as “incredibly punitive.” Transit advocates pressed hard for the pilot, but the governor refused to budge.
The governor’s resistance was reminiscent of 2016, when he balked at legislative language contained in a transportation bond bill requiring state transportation officials to tap federal funding for a pilot study examining the collection of a fee on vehicle miles traveled. Only volunteers would have been allowed to participate in that pilot.
Vetoes $3.9m in earmarks in firefighting training account
The governor vetoed $3.9 million in earmarks that lawmakers had added to a budget account for firefighter training that is paid for using assessments on companies selling property and casualty insurance in Massachusetts.
If the Legislature follows past practice, all of the vetoed spending will be restored through overrides over the next few days, bringing total spending in the account to more than $27 million. The earmarks provide funding for a wide variety of municipal initiatives that have a connection with firefighting but not to firefighter training. For example, the earmarks provide funding for fire station improvements, fire equipment purchases, and firefighting technology upgrades.
Baker’s veto message said he vetoed the earmarks because they provided funding for programs not recommended.
The way firefighter training is funded is similar to the way training for municipal police officers will be supported once a law approved this week takes effect. The new law mandates that police training be financed with a new $2 fee on every rental car agreement, which is expected to raise between $7 million and $10 million a year.