By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Higher taxes approved by the Legislature this summer could open up $6.4 billion in borrowing opportunities for transportation infrastructure projects over 10 years, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation official said at a committee meeting Tuesday.
The $6.4 billion would allow for substantial investment in repair and expansion projects throughout the state, and is about half the $13 billion over 10 years that the Patrick administration envisioned in January, which was coupled with a $1.9 billion tax bill. Lawmakers approved $500 million in new taxes in July but appear poised this week to repeal a new technology tax worth an estimated $160 million.
MassDOT Deputy Finance Officer Thom Duggan told MassDOT's Audit and Finance Committee that the $6.4 billion 10-year capital bandwidth is "preliminary" and the administration will file a "long-term transportation bond bill sometime soon."
Duggan said the borrowing capacity will supported by new tax revenues and by the removal of state employees from the debt-funded capital budget -- where borrowing costs inflate the cost of their paychecks by 1.7 percent over the long-term.
The Way Forward, a policy document that Duggan helped draft, outlined the administration's pre-tax debate plans for upgrading rails and roads, expanding South Station, extending the commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford, allowing for a passenger
While voicing support for the South Coast Rail and the Green Line Extension, Patrick administration officials have not disclosed what projects will make the cut for scaled-down repair and expansion plans.
The $500 million tax bill passed into law over Gov. Deval Patrick's objections, as the governor suggested that when Mass. Turnpike bonds are paid off in 2017, the tolls could come down if MassDOT deems the road "to be in good condition and repair to the satisfaction of the department." Patrick this summer called the Legislature's transportation financing plan "not good enough."
On Tuesday, Highway Administrator Frank DePaola said the money available for keeping the turnpike in good condition is exceeded by the amount of repairs needed.
"Currently on the Western Turnpike we have approximately $18 million on an average annual basis of money available for capital repair," DePaola said. "We've had an independent assessment done, and they recommend that we should be investing somewhere in the order of $45 million to just maintain the road in a state of good repair."
After the meeting, MassDOT Chief Financial Officer Dana Levenson told the News Service it is too soon to know whether the turnpike will be in good enough condition to retire the tolls and noted that the road is depreciated every time a car or truck drives on it.
"It's too early to make that definition right now, but we are looking at it; we are doing our best to spend the resources that we have - keeping in mind the $45 million is what is recommended for us to be spending," Levenson said.
State transportation officials are hoping the $1.3 billion Green Line Extension, which would bring the trolley into Somerville and Medford, would include half its funding from a federal New Starts grant.
The grant requires a demonstration of transportation funding from the state, and Massachusetts plans to update its application Sept. 30, said MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott.
The Legislature's plan to repeal a $161 million computer services tax that passed as part of the so-called transportation financing bill will not hurt the state's chances at New Starts funding, both Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey and Levenson told the News Service.
"It's not a small amount of dollars and it needs to be replaced, but I see it having virtually no impact on the Green Line Extension, per se. We're not tying the tech tax to any specific project," Levenson said.
With a planned Oct. 15 start date, the Bay State will start collecting $12 million more in toll revenue by reinstating the tolls for passenger vehicles on turnpike exits west of Springfield, a policy that was included in the July tax law.
That new revenue could be spent anywhere along the interstate west of I-95, though DePaola presented a list of deficiencies, such as a rusting culvert and a crumbling bridge, that need repair in the westernmost part of the state.
"It can be reinvested in the entire western turnpike," Levenson said of the new toll revenue, though he said, "We have identified projects in the area."
Levenson said about 80 percent of the projects on the capital budget would be for repair.
"I think the Legislature's going to consider a bond bill this fall for projects like South Coast," Davey said on Monday. Asked about the administration's priorities for funding projects, Davey said "we don't have a choice" regarding repairs to the Springfield Viaduct.