WORCESTER – The Senate version of the state budget will emphasize housing and transportation, with plans to expand affordable housing across Massachusetts and modernize the state’s rail system, according to Senate President Harriette L. Chandler.
Speaking at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce annual breakfast meeting Monday, Ms. Chandler detailed two of the Senate’s priorities as it begins crafting its version of the fiscal 2019 budget.
The Worcester Democrat – who will remain Senate president for the rest of the year – said the budget process will require “tough and frank” conversations on issues such as housing and transportation.
Rising housing costs, Ms. Chandler said, “threaten our innovation economy, our ability to retain middle class families and graduating college students, our capacity to attract top talent from other parts of the country and our ability to ensure every family has an affordable place to live.”
The Senate budget, expected in May, will go further than Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the state, Ms. Chandler said.
Part of the Senate’s plan, she said, will focus on updating out-of-date state and local zoning laws that make it harder for local officials and developers to maintain housing costs.
“One of our top priorities is a more comprehensive housing effort that would lower housing costs overall, allowing municipalities to acquire affordable housing as part of every housing development and provide stronger tools to prevent housing discrimination,” Ms. Chandler said.
Transportation improvements will also feature prominently in the Senate’s budget. For one, the state’s commuter rail system will need a “bold re-imagining,” Ms. Chandler said, as an electrified, rapid regional rail system.
“Currently, we are settling for a model of service conceived in the mid-20th century, built for suburban workers on a 9-to-5 schedule,” Ms. Chandler said. “That simply does not reflect the reality of today’s workforce, or the reality of Central Massachusetts as an economic center, attracting its own workforce.”
The state must invest in an electrified rail system with new, self-powered electric train cars to allow faster travel to Worcester and other cities, Ms. Chandler said.
To that end, Ms. Chandler said she will call on the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to submit by early 2019 a plan for the first stage of an electrified regional rail system – to be completed by 2022.
“Imagine frequent service between Worcester and Boston in under an hour throughout the day,” she said. “Imagine what that means for our citizens, for our businesses. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea.”
Locally, Ms. Chandler hopes to secure more funds in the fiscal 2019 budget for the Worcester Regional Transit Authority.
“I’ll note that the governor is proposing to once again level-fund the WRTA this year, leaving the organization exactly where it was in 2015 despite increasing fuel costs, health insurance costs, and other commitments,” Ms. Chandler said. “That’s no way to run a growing business. It’s no way to run a transit system.”
Before going into her plans for the budget, Ms. Chandler ticked off the reasons Worcester has become “the heart and engine of the commonwealth,” including all the new construction across the city and its thriving arts and culture scene.
“This is truly a seminal, pivotal time for Worcester,” she said. “We are no longer the gritty mill city in the newspaper; rather, we are now the exciting destination.”