Charlie Baker’s chance for tomorrow’s transportation

The Boston Globe | December 8, 2014

ANOTHER DAY in Massachusetts, another litany of transportation problems: packed subways in Boston; late commuter trains in the suburbs; clogged roadways, well, everywhere. Snarled traffic makes life miserable for residents, and, eventually, will threaten the state’s rebound from the recession.

Governor-elect Charlie Baker didn’t talk much about the state’s transportation challenges during the fall campaign, but he needs to put together a bold action plan for the next four years. In broad strokes, there’s no disagreement about what the Commonwealth needs: new bridges, faster trains, more transit options. The question is which projects should come first, and how the state will pay for them. Baker should put big-ticket mass transit projects like the Green Line extension at the top of his list, while leading a discussion of ways to replace the gas tax with a better way of financing transportation.

Baker has unique experience in such major projects, even if his central role in the Big Dig was something he preferred not to talk about during the campaign. As an official in the Weld administration, he led the effort to cobble together financing for the Central Artery plan. The project may have been a wasteful debacle, but the finished tunnels are also a testament to the transformative power of smart transportation plans; the project helped revitalize the seaport area and removed a blighted eyesore from downtown Boston. That experience should put to rest the notion that transportation investments can’t pay off.

Luckily for Baker, the outgoing administration leaves him with a strong tools. Deval Patrick attacked many of the state’s problems by consolidating the transportation bureaucracy and enacting a $12.7 billion bond bill for transportation infrastructure. The Patrick administration accelerated bridge repairs, ordered new cars for the MBTA’s Red and Orange lines, and got the ball rolling on open-road tolling on the Massachusetts Turnpike, a system that should save money and end those classic 40-minute delays at the Weston tolls.

As a parting gift, the administration recently secured a federal pledge of nearly $1 billion toward the $2.3 billion extension of the Green Line to Somerville and Medford. Making sure that oft-delayed project stays on schedule should be a top priority for the Baker administration.

Many more ideas are on the drawing board, such as a South Station expansion, a rail link between North and South stations, the purchase of smaller trains called DMUs, more bike lanes, the construction of commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford, bus rapid transit, and highway interchange reconstructions. As for the MBTA, often a rolling sardine can, the Urban Land Institute and Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center say the state needs to plan for a minimum of 100,000 more riders a day by 2021. The state also has an interest in keeping the Port of Boston, the source of 7,000 jobs, humming for ferries, cruise ships, seafood shipping, and container receiving. The transportation wish list also includes policy prescriptions, such as rush-hour pricing to reduce traffic congestion, and zoning changes to encourage more development near transit stops.

Figuring out which should be top priorities demands a master plan focused on reducing traffic, building liveable neighborhoods, and cutting transportation-related carbon pollution. Such a plan should knit together different transportation modes, as many European metropolises already do, and echo what Chicago is striving for with a seven-county regional vision for 2040 that consciously attempts to reverse decades of “uncoordinated expansion” that left many neighborhoods and business clusters “difficult to reach by automobile and virtually impossible by public transit.”

Getting Beacon Hill on board may be a challenge, since lawmakers too often view transportation as a parochial battle between Boston’s priorities and those of the rest of the state. But that thinking will lead to paralysis. Greater Boston is already tied for the third highest rise of traffic delays in the nation since 1982, with commuters losing 53 days and $1,100 a year stuck in traffic, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. At the request of the Globe, TTI senior research engineer Tim Lomax roughly estimated that such delays in Greater Boston, based on population projections in a robust economy, could mushroom to 75 hours a year, about the equivalent of two weeks of work. And it’s not just Boston that suffers. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 42 percent of roads in Massachusetts are in poor or mediocre condition. The Federal Highway Administration says 52 percent of the state’s 5,136 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Recently, the MBTA’s new operator for commuter rail trains in the Boston suburbs, Keolis, was hit with an $804,000 fine for late, dingy, and dimly lit trains.

New trains and bridges don’t come cheap, but on the same day voters elected Baker, they defeated a provision of the gas tax, a move that is expected to deprive the state of an average of $100 million a year to finance transportation-related projects. The repeal vote, which Baker supported, dismayed transportation planners. But the result could have a silver lining if it hastens discussions on Beacon Hill of how to finance transportation in the 21st century. After all, in a few decades most vehicles may not even use gas. While the 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax remains necessary for now, the new governor should open discussions with the Legislature on creating a new funding system, such as new tolls or a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.

Baker’s Big Dig background shouldn’t make him gun-shy about leading major efforts. Securing adequate, long-term transportation funding, and then using it wisely, should be understood as a key part of the state’s broader economic agenda. As The Economist noted, in an era where density has supplanted sprawl, “A city’s infrastructure — ranging from airports, trains, and ports to roads, bridges, and telecommunications networks — is at the heart of its ability to function and attract businesses and people.”

Other states have gotten the message. In San Francisco, voters passed a $500 million bond measure on Election Day to improve streets for mass transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian safety. Alameda County voters approved $7.8 billion over the next 30 years for transit, road, and bike projects. Seattle voted to expand bus service. The places that compete with Massachusetts aren’t standing still. Neither can the Commonwealth.

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