In September 2015, GoBoston2030 was launched by Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston Transportation Department with the slogan “Imagining Our Transportation Future.” The launch included a “Vision Report” that outlined various goals for how to improve Boston’s transportation system over the next 15 years. To put these ideas from the Vision Report into motion, GoBoston2030 said online that the information from the report will go into an “Action Plan” that was supposed to be released during the summer of 2016.
To inform the Action Plan, GoBoston 2030 launched a “Question Campaign.” To find out what Bostonians wanted from public transportation, a “Question Truck” during early winter 2015 visited 15 different places and neighborhoods around the city. The input gathered were then subsequently posted online. A “Visioning Lab” event took place at the China Trade Center in May 2015 where the public had another chance voice their ideas about the “future of mobility.”
During the fall of 2015, Imagine Boston 2030 was also implemented, a similarly designed Mayor Walsh initiative except that rather than focusing narrowly on transportation, Bostonians were asked to look to the future to consider their broader community needs and goals.
This past November, Imagine Boston released its strategic plan, put together after consulting 12,000 Boston residents. Titled “Expanding Opportunity,” the report includes a section on transportation along with many other topics related to the city, including sections devoted to the environment and energy.
In the Expanding Opportunity report, there is a focus on how the city’s economy is creating more new jobs, and in turn residents of the city. A key focus is on alternatives to car ownership, including ride-sharing apps like Uber, which has quadrupled its trips in the last year, according to the report. The report also points out that Uber offers less discounts than public transportation.
For the MBTA, a key focus appears to be on routing which new “Key Routes” have shown to lessen delays. In addition to these options for transportation, the plan also outlines goals to make Boston a more walkable and integrated city with more efficient public transportation routes to connect certain neighborhoods.
Overall, the report says that Boston still needs an eight percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to reach its 2020 goal of 25 percent reduction total. The different proposals put forth in the report aim to help reach that goal, even if it may be hard to implement.
Yet to date, there is still no sign of the more focused transportation report that was promised as part of the original GoBoston2030 initiative and the related website appears to not have been updated in the last few months. So what happened, and where does this leave Boston’s transportation planning and goals?
It appears that progress specific to GoBoston2030 has stalled while Imagine Boston 2030 has received greater priority by city decision-makers. Recently, coinciding with the release of the related Expanding Opportunity report, the city sponsored “Imagine Boston 2030 week” with events, such as walking tours and networking sessions, taking place in different neighborhoods of the city.
Alice Brown, the project manager for GoBoston2030 from the Boston Transportation Department, says that this isn’t a matter of priority. Although the report isn’t out yet, she explains it isn’t for due to neglect, but rather careful planning.
“The reason there’s not much on the website is because we’ve been writing the action plan which involves lots of mapping and analysis,” says Brown. “Nothing that appears in Imagine Boston is at odds with GoBoston, we’ve just wound up on different timelines.”
While GoBoston2030 continues to put the final touches on its action plan, the momentum from Imagine Boston 2030 should shed some light on the transportation question. The programs aren’t at odds, but rather connected with the similar importance placed on Boston’s energy and climate future.
“Imagine Boston is broader and GoBoston is part of that planning process that is focused on transportation,” explains Rafael Mares, vice president and director for healthy communities and environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, who has followed the planning process closely.
“What they did is, they went through a number of steps over time as plans,” he said. “They had this campaign where they were collecting questions at the beginning of 2015, an interesting time when you think about the [record snowfall during those months]. They had a review session and then they came up with a report in September of last year, a framework [that will lead to] an action plan.”
While GoBoston2030 continues to put the final touches on its action plan, the momentum from Imagine Boston 2030 should shed some light on the transportation question.
While the city still hasn’t provided official updates to the public on GoBoston2030 or the more detailed transportation-focused Action Plan, Mayor Walsh has put together a “Mobility Plan Advisory Committee” in order to carry out the goals of GoBoston2030. The committee is made up of government officials as well as transportation experts and advocates including Wendy Landman, the executive director of Walk Boston, a non-profit organization with the goal to make Boston and other Massachusetts communities more walkable places.
“With GoBoston, I’m actually surprised they haven’t released the report because it should be out. Maybe they’re waiting now until after the holidays because I know they’ve solicited a lot of feedback from Wendy [Landman] and others, with marathon listening and feedback sessions,” says Brendan Kearney, the communications manager for Walk Boston. “Wendy said the report should be coming any day now.”
A focus on integrated planning
Yet if the city is prioritizing more integrated, cross-sector planning before turning to a more detailed focus on transportation, that may be a smart strategy given how closely transportation is linked to other challenges like climate change and energy.
“How can we make it easier for people to drive and park around their businesses in Boston when we have sea levels rising?” said Marc Ebuña, co-founder of TransitMatters, an advocacy group dedicated to improving transportation options in Massachusetts. “We dodged a massive bullet with (hurricane) Sandy, what happened in New York could’ve happened here.”
With more scientific information and models available online forecasting the threats that sea level rise poses to Boston, it is understandable that the Mayor’s office is seeking to integrate its transportation planning with its climate and energy strategy. This would explain the shift in attention from a more focused movement about transportation like GoBoston2030 to a broader one such as Imagine Boston 2030.
“Were still on a course of global climate increase and sea level rise, so it’s not about reversing but how much are we willing to mitigate and how low are we willing to bring that curve down,” Ebuña says. “Even though we say we’re concerned about the environment; we haven’t seen investments. MassDOT [the state’s department of transportation] is working with the [MBTA] to work on the 2040 plan so as that wraps up, we better be seeing a very solid and decisive path forward for transportation investment.”
Among those possible paths forward, MassDOT has proposed Focus40, an long term agenda for investment over the next 25 years in transportation infrastructure and MBTA renovations.
Since Focus40 is a state plan, Brown says that it isn’t connected to GoBoston 2030, which places a focus on the city’s transportation and energy future. She acknowledges that future doesn’t exist without the state’s help for certain funding provisions.
“There are projects where we are putting together a plan to advocate at the state level. We can build a better bus facility, for instance, but we can’t necessarily run better buses. We work really closely with the state but we’re publishing our action plan as a call to action for the state,” says Brown. “Focus40 is largely designed for the MBTA. GoBoston, while there are regional projects we support, we’re really just focusing on the city.”
With so many different current and pending plans related to transportation in and around Boston, it appears the city and state are taking transportation issues seriously, but it is unclear whether the city and state are on the same page.
While Focus40 is a rather new initiative, it does not appear to be associated or even mentioned with Imagine Boston 2030 or GoBoston2030. Yet Focus40 has followed a similar path as both of the other two plans – by going directly to the people around the city and state asking what they think needs to be done.
The key differences between the two Boston-centered campaigns and the state-driven Focus40 is that both of the former campaigns are organized by Mayor’s office while Focus40 is led by the Governor’s office. Whether the plans will collide in the future remains to be seen.
But Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation makes the point that the city will undoubtedly need the state support and funding. Nevertheless, he does view all these visions and plans as the first step.
“The vision [GoBoston2030] put forth is a very good vision. It seems organic about what people have made recommendations of. A lot of the things that they proposed in this vision framework unfortunately are things the city of Boston does not control itself,” says Mares. “The big next step is how you get this implemented when the city of Boston will need the state’s help. The city of Boston doesn’t have the power to raise additional funding on its own.”
It appears that both state and city officials are trying to find ways to boost funding in order to improve transportation and infrastructure, not only to relieve congestion and meet the demands of a growing Boston-area population, but also to make communities more resilient to climate change and related risks.
Transportation as an election issue
The first steps in making the case for more funding for transportation is putting forward concrete plans and specific needs so that city and state elected officials can negotiate new revenue measures.
With Mayor Marty Walsh up for re-election in 2017, his goal to improve the city’s transportation system remains an ambition rather than a reality. The same applies to Governor Charlie Baker, who faces re-election the following year. Transportation, along with climate change and energy, are expected to be major issues during the campaign.
In this case, the two political leaders may be at odds with each other, even as both face pressure to invest more money in transportation.
“The question is, how does the city of Boston – without the authority to raise its own revenue – achieve this vision, with a governor all but saying he doesn’t want to raise additional revenue?” Mares says. “Are there other ways for transportation taxes to be raised in the future?”
These are questions that Mayor Walsh, Governor Baker, the state legislature, and the voters will have to negotiate, even as federal funding for transportation under the new Trump administration and Congress remains uncertain.
With Trump promising that he will invest $1 trillion in infrastructure, the city and state should begin mobilizing its officials to put forth proposals on rebuilding local infrastructure, if there is federal money to be had.
With the action plan from GoBoston2030 apparently soon to be released, Brendan Kearney of Walk Boston says that even if the various initiatives appear disorganized right now, the fact that the city is placing an importance on transportation is the first step to improvement.
“I thought GoBoston2030 was great but I think with the BPDA (Boston Planning & Development Agency), it’s almost as though they thought that GoBoston2030 was such a good idea that they should be doing one too but it’s almost better,” says Kearney. “Over the last couple months, I think some of the delay has been trying to synthesize GoBoston2030 with Imagine Boston because they both want to build a place where people rely on transit.”
Even if the various initiatives appear disorganized right now, the fact that the city is placing an importance on transportation is the first step to improvement.
Whether GoBoston2030 and Imagine Boston 2030 stay separate or integrate, the next step is clear to Mares.
“The city hadn’t gone through a planning process in a long time so it’s really important. Now that we have [plans], those are good goals. What we need now is a strategy for implementing.”
Photo credit: Joseph Barillari, Wikimedia Commons