By Charlie Ticotsky
The state has a new, draft plan for transportation. The five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) includes highways, MBTA, regional transit authorities, bike and pedestrian projects, airports, and the RMV. Putting it together was a big undertaking that MassDOT started back in the fall of 2015. The plan will likely be approved on June 22, with revisions in the years to come.
In general, given available funding, we believe the state hit the mark with the overall balance of investments. It includes dollars for modernizing our public transportation, improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and fixing our roads and bridges.
Yet at the same time, the five-year plan is a blinking warning signal. There’s just not enough funding or management capacity to meet all the state’s needs, and the plan demonstrates we will continue to face challenges in adequately funding our transportation system in Massachusetts. .
Two comment letters, from organizations with diverse perspectives, demonstrate this well.
The first one, from Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation (a member of our statewide coalition), finds that by the end of this five-year plan, the number of MBTA buses that will be operating beyond their useful life (12 years) will climb to 908, from 642. Buses are just one part of the MBTA’s massive maintenance backlog. The plan also omits key bus maintenance facilities for regional transit authorities in Franklin County and in the Pioneer Valley.
The second letter comes from John Pourbaix of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts, which represents road and transit-building companies. He notes that in five years, the percentage of the state’s bridges that are “structurally deficient” will increase to 17%, among the worst in the nation, while non-interstate road conditions rated as “good” or “excellent” will drop below forty percent. While our coalition’s analysis found that annual MassHighway spending would average $89 million more than in the previous five-year plan that covered FY2014-2018, our road maintenance dollars are spread too thin. Roads simply deteriorate faster than we are funding repairs, and revenue sources for all modes of transportation are largely fixed, while costs continue to rise.
The CLF and CIM letters demonstrate the scope of our unmet transportation needs. MassDOT attempted to balance priorities, using data-informed processes including the Project Selection Advisory Council’s criteria and the Planning for Performance Tool.
But as Rafael Mares says, “It’s like a blanket that doesn’t cover the whole body. They’re pulling it in one direction and then they’re pointing to the part of the body that’s now covered, and that sounds great, but then you’ve got to look at what isn’t covered.”
And that’s an issue that everyone in Massachusetts will confront in their daily travels as commutes get longer, more frustrating and more crowded. We have greater needs for improving our public transportation, sidewalks, bikeways, and roads than this plan provides. It’s true that we are spending more in the coming years than before. Yet because of cost escalation, that should be true every year.
In five years, we will have more buses past their useful life, more road miles that need repaving, and far too many un-built bike paths, inaccessible transit stations and local projects still on the drawing board. And many transformative projects, whether large scale or small, are not funded in this CIP.
To be clear, more money alone is not the answer. The MBTA and MassDOT as a whole must improve procurement, oversight and management, and state leaders and the public must gain confidence in our agencies’ ability to steward public funds and safeguard public assets.
Transportation is, of course, central to our commonwealth. And Secretary Pollack rightly says that transportation is important not for what it is, but for what it does. So it would strengthen the CIP if it actually measured progress towards the important goals that informed its priorities. Does the CIP adequately expand economic opportunity, reduce greenhouse gases, improve public health, and encourage people to get out of cars and hop on transit, a bike or walk? Those are core measures of things that matter more every year.
Considering how far we have to go, the CIP should help prepare us for, and launch us assertively into the future. Let’s set our sights high, and set forth a bold vision of where we need to go and how we will get there. The CIP is the result of a lot of great work; to no one’s surprise, there’s a lot more work to do.
Charlie Ticotsky is Policy Director at Transportation for Massachusetts, a statewide coalition supporting a modern transportation network