Few parts of Massachusetts government need additional spending as badly as transportation — or have as publicly visible deficiencies. Whether squirming on ancient Red Line cars, sitting in interminable Springfield rush-hour traffic, or waiting for economy-boosting expansions to underserved southeastern towns, just about everybody in the Commonwealth sees, on an almost-daily basis, the consequences of inadequate investment.
So perhaps it's not too surprising that Governor Deval Patrick has made it the centerpiece of his final legislative agenda. He drew as much attention as he could to the unveiling of his "21st Century Transportation Plan," teased out details of accompanying tax proposals, focused on the issue at length in last Wednesday's State of the Commonwealth address, and immediately set off on a media tour to discuss it.
Clearly, he's putting his weight, and political capital, on the line. And not just Patrick: House Speaker Robert DeLeo promised a big transportation bill — including new revenues — in his own agenda-setting speech at the start of the two-year session. Senate President Therese Murray is also on board, so to speak.
It's still politically risky business. And — as has been proven before — broad agreement on the need among Beacon Hill's power triumvirate is no guarantee that something will happen in the end.
The political problem — one of them, anyway — is that Bay Staters all see different pieces of the picture, and have a tendency to dismiss the others. Drivers resent paying for trains; riders resent fee increases that spare drivers. And, of course, everyone outside Route 128 thinks the resources all go to Boston, and vice versa.
The one thing everyone tends to agree on is that the system has historically been a money-sucking waste heap of mismanagement, fraud, hackery, patronage, and union avarice. No surprise that they are reluctant to offer more shekels to that beast.
So it was wise for state leaders to heed Murray's "Reform Before Revenue" bromide, and save the spending debate until after they passed and implemented the Transportation Reform Act of 2009. Although hardly as sweeping as some hoped — and unlikely to have yet assuaged long-held public skepticism — the law has removed many redundancies, streamlined operations, and reduced costs and waste.
It has also restored enough confidence in the system among politicians, business leaders, and regional leaders that many are willing to stand up in favor of a big tax-and-spend plan, without fear of huge backlash — so long as the plan has something for them.
Which is exactly what Patrick appears to be offering.
A NEW TRAIN FOR YOU! AND YOU!
The display of supportive mayors at the unveiling of Patrick's plan was no accident; nor were the generally positive initial reviews in many newspapers across the state. If all politics is local, local spending is the best politics.
Patrick's plan made sure to provide a little something for almost every municipality to like — including a $100 million per year money bucket for them directly via extra Chapter 70 funding.
And, as if to prove the rule, the exceptions took umbrage right on cue. MetroWest region pols, such as State Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland and State Representative Carolyn Dykema of Holliston, loudly criticized the Patrick plan's lack of projects in that area. (Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, both Spilka and Dykema are potential candidates for Congress later this year, should Ed Markey win the upcoming special election for US Senate.)