Beyond the latest “Reason” report: the challenge for Massachusetts

September 23, 2016

Massachusetts must modernize our transportation network to suit changing needs, and we must better maintain and expand our key infrastructure, and we must leverage innovation for better service and value. Without proper investments, grounded in an assertive vision to promote clean and efficient travel, we will pay a big price in lost opportunity, time and higher costs down the road.

This is a challenge that we must address comprehensively, with good information and sound values, informed by expertise and by the everyday perspectives of the public. But good information on Massachusetts - and a sense of perspective - are missing from the latest Reason Foundation report on highway spending. This report deserves a response, because past versions of the Reason report have become fodder for our statewide transportation debate.

First, let’s talk about information. The 22nd report, released in September 2016, and like the previous version in 2014, relies on outdated 2010 data submitted by MassDOT to the Federal Highway Administration. Reading this report, one would think that MassDOT is wasteful in its maintenance of our state road and bridge network. 

It is important that MassDOT provide updated information to federal agencies, and to the public, if we are to restore and build confidence in transportation agencies. We’re eager to see MassDOT provide new data, particularly since the state has started to turn the corner on transportation investments in recent years.

Does Massachusetts really spend much more, per-mile, than other states?  And if so, why? It’s perfectly reasonable that a more urbanized state, with aging bridges and roadways in proven need of repair, will require higher per-mile spending. The Reason report does not account for the age of our roads and bridges, or resulting wear and tear.

And unlike most states, MassDOT spends significantly on local roads that are not technically under state control (and on other roads too, such as DCR). Our actual maintained roadway mileage by that calculation is over 11,000 miles, or four times the mileage reported by Reason. And we significantly underfund local roadway maintenance, as any driver, DPW director, or the Massachusetts Municipal Association can attest.

When Reason reports on deficient bridges, they also lump together “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” bridges. We need to make better progress on both the former, which are critical, and the latter, which will eventually need to be brought up to code. Thanks to the Accelerated Bridge Program (which provided bonding authority) and 2013 Transportation Finance Act (which provided new revenue), we are making better progress on bridges – but as everyone who use them knows, we have a long way to go.

Our larger concern is actually with the values expressed in this report. Reason is pointing us in the wrong direction. Transportation is about much more than roads and bridges; it’s about people and communities.

Massachusetts has a serious problem with congestion. By some estimates, the value of the time our drivers lose behind the wheel is as much, or more than what Reason reports. But with few exceptions, we can't build more roads to reduce congestion. It's self-defeating.

The best solution to roadway congestion is to improve public transit access and capacity, and encourage roadway design and real estate development that is not car-dependent. In fact, better transit is the top answer in a survey done just a few months ago on solutions to roadway congestion. And the more walkable the neighborhood, the more popular and prosperous.

Today’s roads are important for everyone, not just drivers. Massachusetts is fast becoming a leader in the movement towards Complete Streets, which envisions roads that serve everyone: transit users, neighborhoods, cyclists, pedestrians, seniors and schoolchildren. The Reason focus on highways is myopic. 

Transportation today is interconnected and evolving. We use different modes of travel, with changing personal preferences and housing types. Over the last two centuries of our history, we have evolved from canals to rails to paved roads for most movement of people and freight. But we have to look ahead, and not assume that yesterday is the blueprint for tomorrow.

Tomorrow's big challenges for transportation are climate change, public health and social opportunity. These are critical issues that are nowhere to be found in the Reason report. And you won't find the words "environment" or "health" anywhere in the Reason report. You can't even find the word "sidewalk."

And that gets to the biggest challenge for Massachusetts. It's not the straw man arguments of the Reason Foundation, which, to its credit, is clear about its small-government agenda; in the real world, government has a vital role to play.

Part of meeting this challenge is good information. For a start, we call on MassDOT to address the data issues in the Reason report, and embrace the challenge of defending how we spend money on roads and bridges.  Beyond that, policymakers and the public need better information on the benefits of clean transportation, and of investments in disadvantaged communities all around the state.

But the biggest challenge here is to completely reframe this debate. We can’t be playing defense with transportation, and then expect to thrive in our transportation-dependent economy.

Instead, let’s assert the vital role of transportation in a prosperous future, where people have access to many forms of travel, where we acknowledge that tomorrow's workforce can locate anywhere, and where we must leverage transportation investments to reduce carbon pollution, improve public health, and provide access to opportunity for everyone in Massachusetts. 


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