Ah, the heady questions of this election: Will there be a peaceful and smooth transfer of power? Can a polarized country rally behind a new president?How easy will it be to catch the T?
Remember the olden days, when the state of the transportation system was among the most urgent crises facing the Commonwealth? Well, transportation matters may have receded a smidge in priority during the pandemic, but the 2020 election did have ramifications for how we drive, ride and otherwise get around in Massachusetts.
Most of this action was indirect, playing out in other states, with the potential for consequences here. One notable exception: the easy victory of the Right to Repair ballot initiative, which voters overwhelmingly backed in support of independent auto repair shops to access diagnostic data in the increasingly computerized cars the industry is producing.
But control of the federal government and an expensive ballot fight in California could also have big implications in Massachusetts.
A quick rundown:
• MBTA service levels next year could hinge on how a new but potentially still divided Congress handles the next phase of aid during the pandemic. The current Congress has so far failed to agree on another round of coronavirus stimulus that could include money to prop up public transit systems, forcing the MBTA and other US agencies to begin planning service cuts to make up for sharp fare revenue downfalls.
President-elect Joe Biden faces governing over a divided Congress, with Democrats having only the narrowest of shots to take the Senate via two runoff elections in Georgia. If they fail, that likely means more gridlock in Congress and perhaps no big-money stimulus.
But Beth Osborne, director of the national advocacy group Transportation for America, thinks it’s still possible that the next Congress could pass smaller-scale package that would include transit funding.
“It won’t be transit that holds anything up. Transit is not the thing that everybody is stumbling over,” she said. “But the other issues they need to get to are quite complex and quite challenging.”
For T riders, the timing is tight. The agency expects to implement its first set of service cuts by next spring. So any chance of federal money staving off those cuts would have to happen either in the lame-duck Congress or right out of the gate in the new term. T officials say that once service is reduced, it can be adjusted quarterly if they have the money to pay for it and ridership trends warrant it.
• Uber, Lyft, and other so-called “gig economy” companies scored a major and decisive win in their home state of California, spending $200 million to win the right to continue to treat drivers as independent contractors rather than as employees.
The easy win should embolden the companies to push for similar laws in other states, with Massachusetts a likely prime target. That’s because Attorney General Maura Healey is already suing Uber and Lyft in a bid to force the companies to treat their workers as employees subject to minimum wage and benefit rules, citing a Massachusetts law similar to the one Uber and Lyft successfully amended in California.
• There were some mixed results nationally for initiatives to raise taxes for transportation during a pandemic and economic downturn. In a major endorsement for public transit, Austin, Texas, voters blessed a property tax hike to fund $7 billion in projects, including new light rail lines and bus routes. And in deep-red Arkansas, voters opted to keep a half-cent sales tax in place to fund roads and highways. But voters in the greater Portland, Ore. area voted down a $5 billion package to improve their transportation system through the payroll tax.
Massachusetts lawmakers were planning to raise taxes to pay for transportation earlier in 2020, but the state Senate backed down once the pandemic hit. Governor Charlie Baker, meanwhile, recently renewed a push to add new fees to Uber and Lyft trips, including the fee in his latest state budget plan. But the House of Representatives, which had agreed to increase ride-hail fees earlier this year, did not include it in their budget proposal.
Transportation funding could loom large for Massachusetts voters next election. A possible ballot initiative making its way toward the 2022 ballot would would raise income taxes for millionaires, with the money earmarked for transportation and education initiatives.