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Major hike in gas tax, fees urged

Mass. panel's plan would raise $20b

The commission is expected to recommend that the Tobin Bridge (above) be transferred from the Massachusetts Port Authority to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. The commission is expected to recommend that the Tobin Bridge (above) be transferred from the Massachusetts Port Authority to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. (JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF)

A special state commission looking for ways to keep the state's roads and rail systems from falling into disrepair will recommend that the state raise the gasoline tax by 11.5 cents a gallon next year and impose a "user fee" of 5 cents a mile to drive on major state highways, according to an outline of the panel's recommendations.

The Transportation Finance Commission, appointed by the Legislature in 2004, is expected to make its recommendations public tomorrow. It predicted earlier this year that unless costs are cut and revenues increased, the state's transportation agencies will face a deficit of $15 billion to $19 billion over the next 20 years.

To close the gap, the commission is proposing a package of tolls and taxes that would generate more than $20 billion.

The proposals promise to be controversial and will probably face fierce opposition. The recom mendations, some of which have been floated before and rejected, would have to be approved by Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature, which traditionally have been reluctant to hit motorists with new taxes and tolls.

According to a summary of the recommendations, the commission will recommend a gas tax increase of 49 percent in 2008, from 23.5 cents to 35 cents a gallon. In future years, the tax would be boosted annually to reflect higher costs of living. The gas tax has remained the same since 1990.

Gas tax hikes could generate $12 billion to $18 billion in revenue, the panel says. But the gas tax carries a drawback for those looking for new revenue. Over time, collections will decline as hybrid cars and new technologies reduce gas consumption.

To blunt the impact of declining gas tax revenues, according to the panel's outline, the state should impose a system of "direct road user fees" - also known as mileage taxes - similar to those under study by some other states, including Oregon and Colorado. With such fees, motorists would be charged for every mile they drive on all major state roadways - not just the Massachusetts Turnpike - using technology that allows the state to track their mileage and bill them automatically. According to the commission, such fees could bring in more than $5 billion.

The summary of the commission's recommendations does not contain precise details of how such a system would work in Massachusetts. In Oregon, a pilot program tracks the total miles motorists drive using global positioning devices installed in their vehicles. When they fill up with gas, sensors at the service station download the mileage and levy a fee on top of the charge for the gas.

Consumers with the GPS devices are exempted from the Oregon gas tax; people without a GPS unit continue to pay the gas tax.

The commission will also suggest that the state explore privatizing its roadways and bridges as another way to raise revenue.

Besides measures that could make money, the commission will propose 22 changes that could save money, $2 billion over the next 20 years.

It will recommend eliminating paid police details on the state's road and bridge projects. The use of flagmen, instead of police, to patrol public construction projects could save up to $100 million, the commission says.

Paid police details has been one of the most jealously guarded of all police perks and police unions have successfully blocked every effort on Beacon Hill to eliminate the practice.

The commission will also recommend other money-saving measures including scaling back the MBTA employees' lucrative health and retirement benefits, described by the commission as "the most generous in the country."

The report cites the pension plan, which allows MBTA employees to retire with a full pension after 23 years of service, and the health insurance plan, which gives workers free health insurance after they retire.

At a time when the MBTA is struggling to pay its bills and has been forced to raise fares three times over the past six years, specialists have said the state can no longer afford to pay such benefits.

In addition, the commission will recommend transferring ownership and operation of the Tobin Bridge from the Massachusetts Port Authority to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, making it part of the Metropolitan Highway System - which comprises the Turnpike extension, the Sumner, Callahan, and Ted Williams tunnels and the roadways in the Big Dig.

Massport has resisted previous efforts to transfer the Tobin Bridge, which is a moneymaker for the transportation agency. The $27 million in revenue generated by the bridge would help the Turnpike Authority pay its bills, but such a move would likely force Massport to increase fees at Logan International Airport.

When the idea surfaced last year, Massport spokeswoman Danny Levy said "The Tobin Bridge is such an integral part of the Massport's bonding and financial structure, and . . . to put such a proposal into effect would be hugely complicated and unnecessary. If it is not broken, why fix it?"

The Legislature created the Transportation Finance Commission two years ago, directing it to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the state's transportation needs over the next two decades and to find ways to shore up the state's crumbling roads and bridges without a legislative bailout.

Headed by Stephen Silveira, an appointee of former governor Mitt Romney, the 13-member board also includes former state transportation secretary Kevin Sullivan; Alan MacDonald, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable; and Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board.

In March, the commission issued its first report, concluding that the state's transportation agencies are facing such a severe funding crisis that without a significant infusion of new revenue they will not have enough money for basic maintenance and repairs.

At the time several members of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation Committee questioned the findings, saying that similar dire predictions in the past have not come true.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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