BOSTON (AP) — Legislative leaders on Tuesday swiftly rejected Gov. Deval Patrick’s call for a change in a transportation bill that would allow gasoline taxes to increase if tolls are removed from the western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The bill, now on Patrick’s desk, promises $800 million in new annual revenues for transportation within five years. But the administration contends that the legislation fails to account for the estimated $135 million in revenue that would be lost if tolls west of the Interstate 95 interchange in Weston are eliminated as scheduled on Jan. 1, 2017.
Patrick, at a news conference, said he could not sign the bill in its current form and would return it to lawmakers with an amendment to address the loss of toll revenue.
“It simply says that if and when the tolls come down, the gas tax will go up to make up the difference,” the governor said of the amendment, adding that he would also be open to other tax or toll options presented by the Legislature.
Yet the governor had not even finished talking to reporters when House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray issued a joint statement saying the amendment would place too high a burden on taxpayers.
“I strongly disagree with the governor’s assessment,” DeLeo said. “I will not be supporting the amendment nor will I ask any member to support that amendment.”
Patrick said he would not sign the transportation bill into law if lawmakers rejected the amendment or failed to deliver a suitable alternative.
The bill passed both the House and Senate by margins wide enough to overturn a potential veto by the governor, though DeLeo said he could not firmly predict the outcome of any future override vote.
“This is a good piece of legislation, it’s a real piece of legislation,” DeLeo said of the bill. “It’s going to get the job done. It’s going to help the Massachusetts’ economy.
Asked whether the Legislature’s bill was better than no bill at all, Patrick explained that he had already demonstrated his willingness to compromise on his original demand for $1.2 billion in new transportation revenues by the 2018 fiscal year.
“But I cannot accept less than $800 million and further compromise the needs of our transportation system,” he said. “And I will not tell people that this bill raises $800 million for transportation when it doesn’t.”
While the western tolls are not scheduled to come down for three more years, Patrick said action was needed now to assure investors who purchase bonds to finance long-term transportation improvements that revenue would be available to pay off the borrowing. One goal of the transportation bill is to provide resources to embark on projects such as the extension of commuter rail to the South Coast.
The legislation already calls for $500 million in new taxes, including a 3-cent-a-gallon hike in the gasoline tax. Patrick said replacing the tolls would likely add another 3 to 5 cents to the gas tax.
The taxes included in the transportation bill are also needed to balance the $34 billion state budget for the new fiscal year that began Monday. The governor must sign the budget within 10 days, but expressed hope that the dispute with lawmakers would be resolved before that time.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is also awaiting resolution of the Beacon Hill standoff, as the bill includes funds to erase the MBTA’s estimated $118 million deficit. Without the money, officials could be forced to launch another round of fare hikes or service cuts.
“We’re not pressing the panic button at the MBTA,” said Richard Davey, the state’s transportation secretary, adding that public hearings would be held before any cuts in service or increases in fares were implemented.
The T raised fares an average of 23 percent last summer when facing a similar deficit.
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.