After Green Line extension, Mass. needs a new policy

Rep. Michael Capuano | Read it on BostonGlobe.com

Proponents of the long-promised Green Line extension are cautiously hailing its approval last week by the Fiscal Management and Control Board. State transportation officials worked hard to reduce the cost of the project, closing all but $73 million of a nearly $1 billion funding gap, and they deserve our appreciation.

One of the ways the state accomplished this was by insisting that the communities that will benefit most from the extension contribute to the cost of the project. This makes sense. When the Commonwealth makes a significant investment that will benefit one or two communities more than the state as a whole, it is fair to ask them to contribute.

The extension significantly benefits Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford. Cambridge and Somerville have committed to contributing $75 million. Itís important to note that the federal government uses the same policy for transit projects ó including the Green Line extension. It was clear from the outset that the state would be required to pay for half its cost as a condition of getting approval of $1 billion in federal funds. The federal taxpayers would not have contributed $1 billion to this project if the state taxpayers did not match it.

This approach, however, should not begin and end with the Green Line extension. When the state expands our transportation system by building a new off-ramp, widening a road in a congested community, or increasing parking at a commuter rail station, that effort benefits specific communities, and they should be expected to contribute.

But the state needs to institute a transparent policy with objective and reasonable rules that will be applied to all communities fairly in future projects. Absent such an action, the local contributions extracted for the Green Line extension will look shortsighted and unfair. The policy needs to answer many important questions: Which projects should require local contributions? How much should a community contribute? How should that amount be calculated? How should the contribution be shared among the communities that benefit?

Without a clear policy that is evenly and consistently applied, the effort that communities make to support a particular transportation project may not be apparent to taxpayers. The communities benefiting most from the Green Line extension have already done a great deal to share the cost of the project even before they committed to additional funding. Some of these costs include purchasing property needed for the expansion, making local infrastructure investments to support it, and paying annual assessments to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority that far exceed the actual level of service their residents receive.

These types of local contributions should be factored into the stateís new policy. As with the Green Line extension, communities may still be expected to produce additional funds, but the efforts that they have already made will be apparent to everyone. When it comes to the extension, there must also be recognition of the burdens borne by affected communities related to the Big Dig, which is the reason the state is legally required to build the extension ó itís not simply an act of generosity.

Now that state transportation officials have called on Green Line extension communities to help close the budget gap, they should waste no time developing this new approach so that every city and town hoping for the next major project in their community knows what to expect, including how much they will be called on to contribute to their own improvement.