Mayors, a senator and the secretary of transportation all spoke at a "Transportation Summit" in bustling South Station, calling for long-term, sustainable ways to pay for the state's infrastructure needs.
Not one of them uttered the phrase "gas tax."
Instead, the focus was on selling the idea that the Commonwealth needs a state-wide way to pay for rails, roads and bridges. The PR blitz kicked off what is expected to be a widespread campaign to bring in various constituencies, like business, greens and labor.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone made the case that it makes economic sense to invest in transportation.
"Everyone knows," said the five-term mayor, "that a modern, comprehensive and efficient and reliable transportation system is a non-negotiable requirement for a healthy economy, for healthy communities and for a decent quality of life in every community across this Commonwealth."
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said that a few years ago, people might have been surprised to learn of the shortfalls in transit funding.
"It's not a news flash that the transportation system is underfunded," she said.
Curtatone used a phrase invoked by several speakers, saying we've "kicked the can down the road" by putting off investments in transportation. He said dwindling resources has for too long pitted various interest groups against one another: Suburbs versus cities, rural communities versus urban areas, drivers versus rail and transit unions.
"That has got to stop and it's got to stop now," Curtatone told a crowd of more than 100 from a dais set up on the main floor of the station.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said that needed reforms have taken place so that new revenue won't be wasted by being poured into a "broken system."
Gov. Deval Patrick shook up the way transportation is managed in the state. The state's secretary of transportation, Richard Davey, said the MBTA and Department of Transportation have cut costs, trimmed employee benefits back to private-sector levels and improved customer service.
That sets the stage for politicians to begin the push for new taxes, though that word wasn't used.
"Now it's time for new revenue," Menino said. "We must find sustainable funding for investments in the Commonwealth's infrastructure."
Davey said reform alone won't solve the financial crises in transportation.
"The transportation system we have today we cannot afford," said the state's top transit official. "Folks, we are paying for mowing the lawn along the highways with a credit card."
While most of the talk was of the longer-term prospect for transportation funding, the T's $51 million budget gap came in for some discussion. Unless Beacon Hill lawmakers come through with a promised bailout by July 1, the T says it will be forced to hike fares and cut services even further than retrenchments already planned.
The legislature is scheduled to take up the bailout on Wednesday. Some news sources are already reporting a deal is in the works.
And even if that crisis is averted, Davey said that next year's T budget looks to be $100 million in the red.
"Next year means fare increases and service cuts at the T, project delays and bonding expenses, without a long-term funding fix."
Another speaker said Massachusetts' competitiveness was at stake.
"People are eating our lunch," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which co-sponsored the event. He said the Bay State needs to catch up with efforts like those of New York state.