Transportation problems? Why not try a public bank?

Massachusetts suffered an embarrassing drop in the US News and World Report best state ranking last week, especially so because we blew it so badly in just one thing: transportation. We are a dismal 45th out of 50, and to make it worse, it’s a score not just determined by resident surveys, but also backed up by another recent poll.

The MassINC Polling Group, working for the Barr Foundation found that improving Massachusetts highways, roads, and bridges was the top priority for respondents, ahead of improving education or lowering taxes. Since 80% of respondents drive alone as their primary means of transportation, with about 20% commuting between 30 minutes and an hour each day, addressing transportation issues would have some substantial economic and social benefits.

The poll found voters want more funding for both public transportation and roads but didn’t broadly back any one mechanism for generating the revenue needed. A change in state law to permit cities and towns to put funding measures for transportation on the ballot had strong support. Support was also high for adding electronic tolling to more state highways, but only if tolls were used to reduce congestion in the regions where they were collected.

A public infrastructure bank, such as our bill would institute, doesn’t yet have a high enough profile to make it on to polls as a possible solution to state transportation funding problems. (North Dakota, the only state with its own bank, topped the US News rankings for quality of life, and came in second for both fiscal stability and infrastructure.)

We think a public infrastructure bank could make a big difference in increasing the availability of funds for roads, schools, public buildings, recreational and emergency service facilities, and even climate change mitigation methods, and these polls clearly indicate that our state can use all the help it can get. But the MassINC poll also shows that state residents support addressing problems regionally, meaning that we don’t just need to sell the idea of a state bank, we need to ensure that it operates transparently, takes local preferences for solving transportation problems into account, and works for all regions of Massachusetts.

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