The long-awaited recommendations of the state Transportation Finance Study Commission are thoughtful, realistic - and painful to contemplate.

The long-awaited recommendations of the state Transportation Finance Study Commission are thoughtful, realistic - and painful to contemplate.


The panel, created by the Legislature to give an objective rendering of the state of Massachusetts roads and rails, had earlier concluded that will take between $15 billion and $19 billion in new money over the next 20 years to repair and maintain the current transportation infrastructure.


As intended, the commission went places politicians fear to tread. You can't close a $19 billion gap by wishing it away. Indeed, the transportation maintenance deficit exists precisely because elected officials have found it easier to avoid the state's responsibilities than pay for them.


Cutting spending is essential to making the rest of the package politically palatable. The commission calls for dropping the requirement that police, not civilian flagmen, be used on all road construction projects. It recommends reining in the excessive health and retirement benefits enjoyed by MBTA employees and stopping the practice of using borrowed money to pay operating costs.


Its proposed reforms could save as much as $2.5 billion over 20 years. That's real money, but not close to the $19 billion needed. While Gov. Deval Patrick spoke yesterday of using money from casinos to repair roads and bridges, the commission took the reasonable approach that the transportation system should be underwritten by transportation-related revenue.


That starts with the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1991. While not perfect, the gas tax is the fairest, simplest way of making those who drive more, pay more to keep the roads maintained. The gas tax should be raised at least as much as the 11.5 cents the commission recommends. It should be indexed to inflation and - another commission recommendation - restricted to transportation uses.


Ten years out, when improved mileage erodes the money-generating power of gas taxes, the commission recommends moving to a user-based system that would charge five cents a mile for all travel on interstate highways. How this will work is anyone's guess - experiments in other states range from devices that track every vehicle's movements to an Oregon system that counts mileage driven, not where you drove - but the concept is more fair than tolling some highways and not others. Commission members noted that such a charge would be less than MetroWest commuters now pay to take the Pike from Natick to Boston.


While that program gives a nod toward equity for Pike users, other recommendations don't. The commission recommends the state take over $1.8 billion in Big Dig debt from the MBTA, it didn't consider relieving Pike tollpayers of their Big Dig burden. It recommends toll increases on the Pike both west and east of Rte. 128 to cover current obligations - and calls for making the Pike responsible for maintaining Pike "feeder roads" (I-395, I-84 and I-291).


For years, elected leaders have let maintenance of roads, rails and bridges slide because, they said, voters "don't have an appetite" for higher gas taxes. Of course they don't. But voters don't have an appetite for potholes, traffic jams and collapsing bridges like the one that killed 13 people in Minnesota last month.


No one will like all of the commission's 28 recommendations. But we should appreciate their thoroughness and their recognition that responsible stewardship requires we pay to maintain the infrastructure we've built - even if it hurts.