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Not ruling anything out for T, Baker finds tax hike impulse ‘odd’

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By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker, who has avoided discussion of long-term solutions in favor of focusing on short-term fixes for the snow-battered transit system, said Thursday he is not foreclosing any approach but expressed strong reservations about turning immediately to tax hikes.

Baker campaigned in favor of repealing a law linking the gas tax to inflation triggers, which prevailed in November, and said he would not raise taxes or fees. In his first weeks in office he has confronted a broken transit system that some say is in need of more money. When asked about proposed long-term fixes, Baker has continually said he is focused first on helping the system return to full service.

Appearing on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on Thursday, Baker said he would not rule out any approach toward dealing with the MBTA, which has been hobbled by successive snowstorms. Baker contemplated the idea of putting the system into receivership – an approach favored by conservative groups – and said it is “odd” that raising taxes is the first consideration of some while there are serious questions about MBTA and commuter rail decision-making.

“The thing I find so disappointing about this is everybody just says, ‘We should raise taxes.’ All right? That’s what they say,” Baker said. “They don’t look at the fact that no mass transit system in the United States has grown faster than ours has over the course of the past 15 years in a marketplace where the population basically hasn’t changed very much at all. They don’t talk about the fact that we dramatically expanded our commuter rail operation at the same time the number of passenger trips actually went down. They don’t talk about the fact that the operating budget for the T over the last seven or eight years has gone up by 50 percent. I mean there are real questions and real issues here, and I’m happy to have a big conversation about it, but this notion that we should just automatically push that button first before we’ve done any of the analysis on how we’ve got here, or why we’re here, or how we get out, just strikes me as odd.”

Pressed by co-host Jim Braude, Baker acknowledged he would include a wide range of opinions in a future discussion about transportation, and agreed that he is not ruling out any potential outcomes.

“That’s a fair statement, although I think the voters did speak pretty loudly about the gas tax,” Baker said.

Asked about the notion of putting the T in receivership, Baker noted successful state receiverships of Lawrence Public Schools, the city of Chelsea and a fiscal control board in Springfield, but cautioned receivership may not be the correct approach for the transit system.

“Is that an option that people would automatically go to and bring up? Sure, but it may or may not be the right one,” Baker said. “I think we’re getting way ahead of ourselves when we start talking about what the right answer is here without giving people the opportunity to chew on that.”

The idea of raising revenues was brought up by a caller named Richard, from Haverhill, who told Baker it is “irresponsible” of Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo to rule out raising revenues. Baker has long maintained an opposition to increasing taxes and DeLeo – who helped pass gas and tobacco taxes in 2013 – has said he would not use taxes in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

There has been bipartisan acknowledgment that the MBTA needs fixing.

Asked if the state should move ahead on the South Coast Rail, an estimated $2.2 billion commuter rail extension to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford, Baker said planning for the project should continue and said he thinks even in a best-case scenario construction would not begin until five years from now. The state has periodically made improvements along parts of the route the train would take.

“That’s something that the state’s been committed to doing for the people of southeastern Mass. for a really long time and I think the planning work associated with it should continue,” Baker said.

Another perennial idea to give the MBTA more financial flexibility is to transfer some of its debt to state government. Baker said that idea would probably be part of the discussion and detailed what some call the MBTA’s “Big Dig debt.”

Before Gov. William Weld took office in 1991, Baker said, state officials signed a Big Dig consent decree with the Conservation Law Foundation committing the state to transit system expansions whose costs Baker pegged at $3 billion and which include the Green Line extension into Somerville, a project that is getting underway.

Forecasting an eventual debriefing on the transit system crisis, Baker predicted there will be a “lot of things” the state can do to ensure the crisis is not repeated. For instance, he said the state purchased two large snow melters between storms and Baker said those machines are helping to melt 100 tons of snow per hour.

The governor said he wished he had reached out earlier in the transit system crisis to speak directly to MBTA officials. “In retrospect I wish I had,” he said.

Transit authority officials have accepted the governor’s office’s invitation to help restore service, Baker said, and most of his senior staff members are spending most of their days working on transit issues. The governor predicted “far better” MBTA service levels on Monday compared to a week ago.

Michael Norton contributed reporting.

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