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Rep: Massachusetts House Ready To Move On $18B Transportation Bond

Massachusetts Rep. William Straus (right) and Massachusetts Sen. Joseph Boncore (left).
Sam Doran
State House News Service
Massachusetts Rep. William Straus (right) said he's waiting to hear back from his transportation co-chairman, Massachusetts Sen. Joseph Boncore (left), about moving the governor's transportation bond bill out of committee.

The Massachusetts House Democrat who co-chairs the state's Transportation Committee said Thursday he's ready to move on Governor Charlie Baker's $18 billion borrowing bill to finance infrastructure improvements over the next five years — one of the major pillars of the governor's agenda for 2020.

Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said he reached out by text message over the holiday weekend to his co-chair Sen. Joseph Boncore to suggest scheduling an executive session in order for members of the committee to vote to recommend a new version of Baker's bill.

The Mattapoisett Democrat said has not received a response from Boncore, but hopes to avoid having to seek an extension beyond the Feb. 5 deadline for most committees to report on bills filed at the start of the session.

"I made the request because I think the House members are ready," Straus said.

Straus said he was asked about the status of the bill by several legislators after Baker mentioned it in his State of the Commonwealth address on Tuesday night.

While House Democrats have been privately discussing ways to raise new revenue to fund transportation improvements, Baker has been publicly touting the $18 billion bond bill as largely sufficient to make major investments over the next five years.

The governor did propose in his fiscal 2021 budget on Wednesday to raise fees on Uber and Lyft rides by $100 million to boost the operating budget of the MBTA.

"We know these are big, complicated issues, but we urge the legislature to act as quickly as possible on these bills," Baker said in his speech, referring to both the bond bill and legislation to address congestion caused by ride-hailing services.

The bond bill, the governor said, proposes to direct $11 billion into road and bridge improvements and $7 billion into the "expansion and modernization of transit, commuter rail and bus services."

The governor has also proposed in the legislation to create a tax credit for businesses that allow their employees to telecommute as an incentive to reduce road congestion, and to earmark half of all revenues from the controversial, still-in-development regional cap-and-trade program known as the Transportation Climate Initiative to public transit.

The legislature over the years has been generally receptive to advancing bond bills, which authorize capital spending over multiple years, but Democrats in the legislature this year are also actively pursuing a revenue bill that could boost recurring sources of funding for transportation investments.

Straus declined to discuss changes he will recommend to the governor's bill, but suggested that the House will not seek to increase the total amount of borrowing above $18 billion. There could, however, be policy changes.

"It's unlikely that the same bill that the governor filed is the one that the committee would report. There would be things changed, deleted and added," Straus said. 

Boncore was on a flight to Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon and was not available for an interview, but his office issued a statement on Straus's request.

"The Transportation Bond Bill remains a Senate priority. I continue to work with my co-chair to get this bill out of committee. Every penny of the $18 billion proposed funding is critical to the transportation infrastructure in municipalities from Provincetown to Pittsfield," the Winthrop Democrat said.

Executive sessions have become far less common in the legislature in recent years as chairs from both the House and Senate have preferred to poll committee members over email in order to report out legislation.

"This kind of bond bill is a little different in terms of how the membership looks at it, so I thought there are likely House members of the committee and Senate members of the committee who would like to express some views and input," Straus said.

Under the rules of the committee, the two chairs must be in agreement before an executive session can be scheduled. Another member of the committee from the Senate told the News Service Thursday they had not heard from their chairman about a possible date for a vote.

The committee, which is controlled by Democrats, has 20 members, including seven senators and 13 House members. Only four of those members are Republicans.

"I'd like to see it move," Straus said. "This is not a bill I think anyone wants to sit on."

The Transportation Committee held a hearing in October when Baker testified in person in support of his bond bill, which he filed in July and is the first such borrowing bill focused on transportation since former Governor Deval Patrick signed a $14 billion version in 2014.

The governor's bill also proposed contract and procurement reforms to speed up projects and recommended a new $100 million paving program to help municipalities maintain state numbers, but locally owned roads.

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