By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
EVERETT -- Tasked with developing a portion of its own revenue, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is closing in on plans to raise Registry of Motor Vehicle fees, in addition to the previously announced 5 percent increase in MBTA fares.
Registrar of Motor Vehicles Celia Blue told the News Service the RMV has still not yet determined the size of the fee increase and will make a presentation to the state Transportation Board on March 19.
Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials in late January described Registry fees as "the only viable revenue source" to close a projected $55 million budget gap for fiscal 2015. The Registry collected $550 million in revenue in 2013, including $134 million in motor vehicle inspection fees. Registration fees, title certificates and driver's license fees are other top revenue generators at the RMV.
At a budget hearing Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey laid out efficiencies through telecommunications and bridge-building technology and plans to team up with New England states for the purchase of salt and tires and move 4,000 employees off the debt-funded capital plan.
The transportation chief who helped the unsuccessful push for Gov. Deval Patrick's larger tax package last year also discussed the fiscal constraints the department faces and the potential monetary blow if a ballot referendum passes, repealing the law that indexes future gas tax increases to inflation.
"Toll revenue cannot be used to meet our obligation to pay for transportation staff on the operating budget. Therefore, the one revenue source we can and we will turn to is registry fees," Davey said.
He also said, "The repeal of the gas tax indexing will result in a loss of an estimated $2 billion in capacity for projects over the next decade. This will be a significant cut to an already underfunded long-term transportation program."
Tens of thousands of registered voters have signed petitions to put a gas tax indexing repeal measure on the November ballot, arguing against automatic tax triggers and asserting that lawmakers should have to vote each time the gas tax is raised.
The July 2013 tax law required MassDOT to fund a portion of its budget through its own revenues and savings. Davey said Patrick's fiscal year 2015 budget increases transportation funding by $141 million, including $55 million from MassDOT revenues, allowing the state to move employees from the capital budget to the operating budget.
Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Whitman Republican who has been outspoken in favor of repealing the gas tax indexing, said he would "avoid" talking about that when Davey appeared before the House and Senate Ways and Means committees at Everett High School.
"I'm happy to debate you any time on the gas tax," Davey said.
While Diehl did not respond at the hearing, he reacted swiftly to a News Service tweet reporting on Davey's challenge. "Equally happy to debate the Secretary on taxation without representation, anytime," Diehl tweeted.
Davey said MassDOT has been in discussion with other New England states about jointly purchasing salt and tires, and he said the Public Private Partnership Commission, which was established by a 2009 transportation reform law, held its first meeting last May.
"Currently, the commission is studying the possibility of a third, tolled bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, the construction of 'managed lanes' on Route 3 South and enhancements to state-owned real estate parcels such as rest stops adjacent to state highways," Davey said.
The state faces a potential funding shortfall, as the Federal Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to go into deficiency in August, Davey said. If that happens, he said, ""We'll be cutting projects throughout the state."
Davey also said the MBTA, which powers trains with electricity, has undertaken energy efficiency projects over the last four years that have reduced annual consumption by 8.8 million kilowatt hours and saved $1.75 million.
Construction projects have been handled more quickly by closing down facilities - such as the Callahan Tunnel - providing incentives and penalties for on-time completion, and completing much of the construction work off-site on bridge projects.
"We are finishing projects in days, not years," said Davey, who asked the Legislature to grant MassDOT the ability to reimburse utilities for their costs on a broader array of projects.
Davey told Sen. Sal DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat who co-chaired the hearing, that the reconstruction of the Alford Street Bridge, linking Everett to Charlestown, had been delayed because workers found an old gas line, and said the new bridge would be opened in July.
In fiscal year 2014, 75 percent of highway contracts have been completed on time, 79 percent have been completed on budget, with 10 percent under budget, Davey said. He said the number of structurally deficient bridges has decreased from a high of 543 in 2008 to 444.
Davey said MassDOT had "recently" reached an agreement with labor, allowing the state to phase out all toll-taker positions on June 30, 2016, as the state implements all electronic tolling, which would allow drivers to maintain speed as they are charged for their travel. The Tobin Bridge is scheduled to receive the all-electronic tolls this spring.
The state has sought savings with its call center, as well.
"Last month, we implemented virtual hold at our call center, so customers know how long they will be on hold and can opt for a call back from a registry agent rather than wait on the phone," Davey said. "In the first 30 days of this program, we've already saved the Commonwealth $35,000 in phone charges and saved our customers over 1.8 million minutes of their time."
Michael Norton contributed reporting.