Massachusetts needs a gas tax hike, but also rebates for low- and middle-income drivers, former state rep says

Massachusetts should increase its gas tax, but not without offering some relief to low- and middle-income drivers, former state Rep. Jennifer Benson said Monday.

Benson, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, said the gas tax hike is regressive, but necessary to bring in revenue and deter car usage as public transit projects statewide take shape.

“This should be accompanied by policies that would ease the burden on low- and middle-income drivers, especially in rural areas where public transportation isn’t an option,” Benson said during a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency.

Benson’s recommendations were just one of several business leaders, labor representatives and transportation advocates made before the committee, which seeks to explore changes that could be made to improve life in Massachusetts following the COVID-19 pandemic. Transportation officials and lawmakers not only face growing demand to improve public transit options, but to respond to concerns about ventilation issues on buses, poor air quality in cities and the state’s infamous congestion problem.

“One of the big takeaways is the clear link between our transportation systems with health outcomes, economic access and our fight against climate change,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat and chairman of the Reimagining Committee.

The transportation woes not only involve lack of mobility outside of the Greater Boston area, but also COVID-19 exposure for mass transit workers, poor air quality in Springfield and skyrocketing housing prices near trains and buses.

Hinds said the “Last Mile” program could use technological improvements to meet workers where they are, making the buses and other vehicles more accessible.

“When you’re going over further distances with fewer populations, it’s even more important to have that Last Mile piece in place,” he told reporters. “We’re starting to see glimpses of that investment, but I’ve identified that as an area where more is needed if we want to have that mode shift to public transportation.”

Sen. Adam Hinds, chair of the Reimagining Committee, takes testimony from labor representatives, business leaders and transit advocates at Monday's hearing.Screenshot

Stacy Thompson, executive director of LiveableStreets Alliance, said transportation officials should make broad public transit improvements, as well as improve broadband access because public transit and hybrid work structures alone won’t cure the state’s worst-in-the-nation congestion.

“We don’t need everyone to back to the office to have the worst congestion in the country, and we’re there,” Thompson said. “Even if we are in a future where more folks are moving to rural parts of the state ... I think that there’s a misperception that that will take the strain off of our transit systems and our roads and bridges, and if anything, we need all of that plus great broadband.”

Benson recommends tackling congestion, but she said a gas tax hike and congestion pricing might also be necessary as long as the state offers relief to rural and working-class drivers. The kind of rebates that could accompany a gas take hike is a rebate adjusted for both income and geographic region, Benson said.

Other suggestions Benson made include reducing fares for the T and Commuter Rail, adding more ridership hours to serve second- and third-shift workers and improve buses.

How does Massachusetts pay for this? Regional ballot initiatives to improve local transit projects, congestion pricing and passing the Fair Share Amendment, which would impose a 4% additional income tax on individuals who report an income of more than $1 million.

“The Fair Share amendment is the least regressive option currently on the table, and you might think why is this business group coming to you endorsing this, but our board did endorse it,” Benson said.

She projected the so-called “millionaire’s tax” would raise up to $1 billion for public transportation and “clear its entire repair and maintenance backlog by 2030.”