Saturday, December 13, 2008

People Want Public Transit

David Luberoff, of Harvard, pens an excellent opinion piece in today's Globe arguing that new construction projects for public transportation are actually very popular. According to Luberoff, 80% of public transportation ballot questions across the country, questions that raised taxes to fund public infrastructure projects, were ultimately victorious on election day. Unfortunately, we can't put such measures on Massachusetts ballots:
Because our state constitution neither requires nor allows such votes, Bay State voters won't get the chance to vote on a similar measure. But the state's elected officials still can learn four important lessons from the long history of successful - and occasionally unsuccessful - bond referenda from around the country.
Thus, we rely solely on Beacon Hill, the MBTA, Pike and Washington to solve our transportation problems. Yikes. Now, while many are usually skeptical about ballot questions, putting big projects on ballots seems a great idea, so long as they include a funding mechanism. It's similar in ways to the good part of Prop 2 1/2 - the authority of the voters in a town for building a new school or library is often granted when the needs are great and the plans are strong.

Politicians are always wary to raise taxes for anything, despite the fact that polls have shown in the past that people are willing to pay for whatever's important, including investments into the public infrastructure. Thus, we've seen only minor improvements to public transportation in the past half century. Giving Massachusetts citizens the right to put these projects on the ballot would encourage groups, voters and politicians to come up with good designs, ideas and funding mechanisms that would improve lives, communities and the economy all across the state. Inclusive, well-designed measures that show where the money will come from would pass, more often than not. 80% of them passed this year, in a bad economy, despite the fact that they raised taxes.

Imagine a vast expansion of the MBTA for the city as well as suburbs, a New Bedford train, more Worcester options and a train linking Springfield to Hartford. Massachusetts would be a much more prosperous place. Everyone would benefit from such a wide range of projects; no one would be left behind. New neighborhoods would emerge; thousands of businesses would be created. Areas across the state that have been stuck for the past 50-100 years would suddenly become reinvigorated, from Lynn to Springfield to New Bedford. They'd be affordable places to not only live, but live well. After long years of decline, they'd see major growth - our former mill towns across the state finally seeing the benefits of living in what has otherwise been a prosperous state.

Beacon Hill needs to get over its irrational fear of raising taxes, or it needs to give the people the ability to pass our own transportation plans at the ballot box. We're not afraid of paying for something when the plan is good, even if it scares the whits out of Beacon Hill. Someone needs to bring Massachusetts and its infrastructure forward; perhaps, sadly enough, the electorate itself is the only credible entity left with the will to do so. We're just lacking the legal ability.

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