Transportation advocates want to give Massachusetts a tool other states have for raising revenue and spending it on transportation: municipal or regional approval of taxes for projects approved at the ballot. Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) thinks his proposal could help break Beacon Hill out of the status quo of relying on statewide transportation fixes for every individual community.

Downing has a unique perspective for looking at transportation finance. He represents 52 cities and towns in the western counties and sees firsthand why solutions for Boston and the MBTA may not work so well for highway and bridge projects in other areas.

Basically, his legislation would allow municipalities, either individually or as regional entities, to ask voters if they can raise revenue and spend it on specific transportation projects. Downing sat down with WGBH News last week. [NOTE: the interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Mike Deehan: How would this plan work?

Sen. Ben Downing: The idea is that we would empower cities and towns to either individually, or coming together as a region, to raise revenues for transportation projects, if they are supported at the ballot by voters in those individual municipalities or in the region as a whole. When I've looked at the challenge of the deficit that we have in our transportation system, I think it's pretty clear that Massachusetts doesn't have one of the tools that many other similarly-sized states have, which is regional revenues. In many cases either the county or some other group of municipalities has the ability to help fund regional transportation investment.

"We know that the transportation needs of the Berkshires and Boston are going to be different, but we also know that there is a glaring deficit in investments that haven't been made for the better part of the last two, if not three, decades that need to be made in all of those communities.

I also think the way we pay for transportation right now in statewide revenues has set up our system to fail in some ways. Each region thinks someone else is making out better in the current system, when, unfortunately, every region is being underinvested in. We have the ability to solve this problem and I think one of the ways that we solve it is be empowering communities and by empowering voters. And I think those two things together give us a path to breaking down that transportation deficit and give us a path to building support and faith with voters.

Deehan: Does that support and faith extend to lawmakers from different regions as well? It has been traditionally difficult to convince lawmakers from outside the MBTA zone that their constituents' tax dollars should go into fixing a transit system they don't ride.

Downing: That's why I think this proposal has promise, because I think it has a little bit of something for everyone. First, for voters, they get to control it. And for advocates who are concerned that voters wouldn't support it, I say, if you look at regional ballot initiatives across the country in red states and blue states, in urban regions and rural regions, when voters have the opportunity to control where they are going to spend transportation dollars, generally speaking, they are supportive of it if they think the project has merit. Generally these ballot initiatives have passed 70 percent of the time, so I think there is a path forward for revenues and there is a reason to be hopeful if you're a voter that your say can really have a great deal of control.

The MBTA, more than any other similarly-situated large regional transit authority, is reliant on statewide revenues even though it only serves a part of the state—a large portion of the state and a good majority of the state, but I don't think that sets it up to have the political support it needs moving forward. I think this would.

[And for those worried the bill would be seen as a tax hike ...]

Downing: If you are the Baker administration and you may not want to go to revenues too soon, I think this is a proposal that isn't necessarily a tax vote by the Legislature or the endorsement of a tax vote by the administration, but rather is empowering individual communities or regions to come together and control their own transportation future.

Deehan: Is that counter to what we've been hearing from transportation planners and policymakers who say Massachusetts benefits from a statewide transportation vision? Wouldn't it be anathema to planners to have transportation projects decided by referendum?

Downing: I would say this, first of all, our current status quo ought to be anathema to transportation planners and policymakers because it puts us on a path to growing transportation deficits, to crumbling infrastructure and to not building out the system that we need to to support the economy, whether that's in the Berkshires or in Boston.

I don't think that this is a cure-all for the transportation system. I do think it interjects a new dynamic to the system, another player that can rebalance the system.

Deehan: We learned not long ago that the Boston area is one of the nation's most inequitable urban areas. Are Suffolk and Middlesex Counties in a different position than the others, and how does your plan address racial and economic disparities? Where do the poor come into this discussion of raising taxes?

Downing: The poor and the working class are at this point the folks who are bearing the brunt of that lack of investment over the last 20 years, whether that's in an unreliable MBTA or crumbling infrastructure in Western Massachusetts, right?

[Downing mentioned how falling income tax rates projected for the next few fiscal years will disproportionately affect higher-income earners.]

Downing: There's a lot in how we pay for public services generally that ought to concern us if we're trying to address inequality in our communities and we ought to be mindful of that. And I think there are a variety of options in the bill that I've filed that could address that. It [allows] for local communities to do a regional gas tax. They could do a regional sales tax. They could do a regional payroll tax. All of which have different impacts on different groups of taxpayers and each region ought to be able to chose which one works best for them.

Deehan: The Legislature seems to like putting together large "omnibus" transportation legislature every few years. This plan is outside of that system. What are the odds that a plan like this could gain traction and become law?

Downing: I am hopeful because for the better part of the last 20 years, we have thought in one form or another that we had this solved and we didn't. And that's playing within the framework that we have of existing transportation policy and tax policy. This is outside of that framework. I recognize that, and quite frankly I think that that is one of the greatest strengths of this proposal. The existing framework isn't solving the problem. It isn't serving the communities that it's supposed to, and we ought to be open to new and different ideas about how we get there.

Deehan: You're not running re-election and leaving the Senate at the end of this year. Are you going to continue to lead this charge?

Downing: I got elected to do that job for two years last time around and I plan on doing that job for the full two years. I want to be a part of this discussion and I continue to reach out not just to my colleagues here in the Legislature and I'm hopeful we could see action on this in the Senate potentially this session. But I'm also reaching out to my colleagues in state and local government throughout Massachusetts ... and I am hopeful that they along with many of my colleagues in the Legislature here who are interested in this and want to find a way to break out of the status quo which everyone admits isn't working for anyone.

I am sure someone will run pick it up, but for now, I'm running with the torch right to January.