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April 24, 2024

Healey dismisses transportation secretary's suggestion of NH border tolls

Two people standing in a subway station Image | Courtesy of Chris Lisinski, State House News Service Gov. Maura Healey (right) and Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt (left) walk through the MBTA gates at North Station ahead of a press conference on Feb. 12.

Gov. Maura Healey thinks her top transportation deputy used a "very poor choice of words" during her recent candid remarks about wielding her policymaking power and exploring controversial tax, fee and toll options, but suggested she's ready to put the matter in the past.

In a live interview on WBUR's "Radio Boston" Tuesday, Healey continued to distance herself from the idea of expanding highway tolls to the state's borders, one of many options that Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt said is under consideration by a transportation funding task force.

"I am focused on affordability, I am focused on competitiveness. I'm not putting tolls at the border," Healey said. "I am focused on working with the T and the secretary on ensuring what we are doing so that we improve our transit system."

Tibbits-Nutt drew fire after comments she made at a Walk Massachusetts event, particularly from Republicans and the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance group, which called for her termination. She suggested the Healey-created task force would not face restrictions on its work and would consider tolling at the borders, charging transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft more, and increasing payroll taxes -- or as she put it, "basically going after everybody who has money."

The secretary also spoke about her direct approach to the job and described herself as a powerful figure able to reshape policy based on her preferences.

"The beauty of a microphone in all of these different places, especially when it's being recorded -- once I say it, it's there," Tibbits-Nutt said at the event, which was first covered by CommonWealth Beacon. "... I will 100 percent use that as a weapon, because once I say it, it is now a policy. I have now weighed in. Once I write something down about a project I think is important, all the reasons I think it's important, now it's there. It just is. So now it kind of makes it to where we can really harness that."

After WBUR host Tiziana Dearing played an excerpt of that Tibbits-Nutt quote, Healey replied that she has "already spoken to the secretary about that."

"That was a very poor choice of words. That's not how we do things, that's not how we operate, and we've moved on from that," Healey said. "At the end of the day, as governor, for better or worse, I'm going to make the policy in consultation with my team and make the recommendations to the Legislature. We'll do that in a collaborative way."

Dearing asked if the governor making clear her opposition to roadway tolls at the borders would create a "chilling effect" on the task force's work, and if there were any other ideas that should be out of bounds. Healey did not give a clear yes or no answer.

"I've said from the outset that I'm focused on making Massachusetts more affordable and more competitive, and that applies to transportation as well," Healey replied. "The reason I convened that task force and I asked for recommendations by the end of the year is because I know that we've got an issue with how we think about creating the best public transit system that we can possibly have. I'm going to leave it to the experts that I appointed to that task force. They'll meet over a series of months, and we'll see what they come forward with in terms of recommendations."

The Senate's four Republicans said in a joint statement Monday evening that although they "realize the need to responsibly fund transportation infrastructure, raising fees, taxes, or tolls now is the last thing hard-working, commuting Massachusetts residents deserve and our economy needs."

"In an era where workers and their financial resources continue to leave the state to avoid those costs, the Secretary revealed a no-stone-left-unturned approach to squeezing revenue from 'anyone who has money,' through a wide range of fees and taxes applied to such things as package deliveries, ride sharing services such as Uber and Lift [sic], and even new tolls on the roadways of our state," the senators said in a statement shared by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr's office. "This approach has the very real potential to inflict serious damage to our competitiveness, and to punish people who depend on package deliveries and need to commute every day to one or more jobs, to school, or for such necessary destinations as medical appointments."

Healey signed an executive order on Jan. 24 convening a new panel to craft "recommendations for a long-term, sustainable transportation finance plan," long a subject of hand-wringing among elected officials in Massachusetts.

She gave the group until Dec. 31 to produce a report, which signals that any major legislative push will not begin until at least the 2025-2026 lawmaking term -- the second year of which would align with a potential Healey reelection campaign.

Healey in February declined to embrace or rule out the prospect of pursuing tax and fee increases to generate more transportation funding, adding that she "ha[s] not been afraid to take this head on."

Beacon Hill has hundreds of millions of dollars more per year available for transportation investments than it did a few years ago thanks to a voter-approved surtax on high-income Bay Staters. Officials expect the surtax, whose revenue must be earmarked for education and transportation purposes, will generate $1.3 billion that can be spent in fiscal year 2025.

However, Healey's push for a sweeping review of transportation funding suggests she might not view the surtax money alone as sufficient to meet the state's needs, particularly as the MBTA continues to grapple with major operating budget shortfalls and the long-term shift to electric vehicles diminishes revenue from the gas tax.

Many of the ideas Tibbits-Nutt suggested are on her radar are not new additions to the arena of public debate.

Senate President Karen Spilka, whose district includes many communities served by the Massachusetts Turnpike, said in April 2019 that the state should "explore the possibility of expanded tolling, including possibly at our borders."

Days before the COVID-19 state of emergency began, the House in March 2020 approved a transportation funding package that would have hiked the state's gas tax, increased the corporate minimum excise tax, expanded fees on transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, and required rental car companies to pay sales tax when they purchase vehicles for their fleets. The Senate never took up the bill, and Democrats attributed the inaction to the pandemic.

Former Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in January 2020 proposed quintupling the flat 20-cents-per-ride fee on transportation network companies and using much of the new funding on the MBTA.

A year later, the House and Senate both agreed -- with just one dissenting vote from Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman -- on a massive transportation bond bill that included even larger fee hikes on ride-hailing platforms than Baker sought. However, Baker vetoed the fee increases, lawmakers failed to leave themselves time to override the governor's rejection, and legislative leaders in the ensuing three-plus years have opted against making another push for the idea.

Baker also spent several years pushing for a multi-state program known as the Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI, that sought to rein in emissions from the transportation sector with a cap-and-invest effort. But facing political opposition fueled by the specter of higher gas prices, several states including Massachusetts pulled the plug.

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