It's Time for Massachusetts to Lead

January 06, 2017

Since election day, there has been a lot of talk about the prospect of greater federal investment in infrastructure, including transportation.

There has not, however, been a lot of clarity about what that investment might look like, how big it might be, what types of transportation infrastructure might be targeted, or even where the money might come from to pay for it. 

The potential conflict between a new President who brashly promised a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending during the recent campaign, and a Republican majority in Congress that has historically rejected anything that smacks of “stimulus,” makes the outcome of the upcoming federal debate on infrastructure particularly difficult to predict.

One thing is for sure, however: if Massachusetts is to develop a 21st century transportation system capable of supporting a vibrant economy, broadening access to opportunity, and addressing urgent challenges like climate change, we need to develop and implement solutions that meet our own needs, regardless of what happens in Washington. Other states have done this, and so must we.

It’s easy to see the urgency. Transportation improvements are catalysts to better jobs, better health, better quality of life and safety. People want roads, rails, buses, bridges and bikeways to work as they should – not get in the way. Congestion, delay, detours and inadequate transit service are not insurmountable problems. And people increasingly want clean, car-free transportation choices, so the investments we need have popular support. 

Massachusetts has been here before. In 1969, at a time when federal transportation policy heavily favored highway construction, Republican Gov. Frank Sargent called for a sweeping review of transportation plans for Greater Boston, leading to the eventual cancellation of the Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt, and a generation of reinvestment in public transportation. In the process, Massachusetts created an example followed by other cities and states across the country, and eventually lent momentum to shifts in federal transportation policy.

Massachusetts’ needs are different today than they were a half-century ago – as are our opportunities. And the need for state leadership is greater.

The public transportation infrastructure we built and improved in the last decades of the 20th century is in increasingly poor condition – the result of short-sighted funding choices and uneven leadership over the course of many years. Key areas of Massachusetts – from emerging employment centers like Boston’s Seaport District, to low-income neighborhoods like Chelsea and Mattapan, to most cities and suburbs – remain without adequate, high quality transit service. And we struggle to take full advantage of our existing resources, such as our sprawling commuter rail network, to provide the kind of world-class transit service that can make more Bay Staters feel comfortable with a car-free commute.

Across the state, regions and municipalities too often have trouble providing transportation basics to residents – pothole-free roads, basic transit service, safe places to walk or ride a bike. “Gateway Cities” like Springfield and New Bedford remain poorly connected to a regional rail network that could link them efficiently to regional economic engines like Boston and New York City, while many residents, an increasing number of whom are escaping from Greater Boston’s high housing costs, lack access to jobs and opportunity. Regional transit services have not seen significant funding increases in years, and far too many people can’t get a bus on evenings or weekends. And only the most affluent communities are able to keep pace with roadway maintenance.

New technologies and services – from carsharing to autonomous vehicles – open up new options for addressing our most intractable transportation problems, while potentially supporting the growth of the Commonwealth’s high-tech economy. But getting the most benefit out of these new technologies – and avoiding nightmare scenarios that result in the erosion of key transit services, exacerbated traffic congestion, or the acceleration of suburban sprawl – requires leadership and guidance from the State House and local governments, who risk being preoccupied just with holding our existing transportation system together.

To date, the Baker administration has focused its attention on reforming the machinery at the heart of Massachusetts’ transportation system. That’s vitally important, and overdue, but it doesn’t begin to articulate a vision of the Massachusetts we’d like to build for ourselves and our children in the decades to come – or even solve the everyday problems of residents all across the state in 2017. With answers unlikely to be forthcoming from Washington, Massachusetts has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to articulate our own vision of the future, and commit to making it a reality by putting our policies and our resources where our intentions are.

It’s not enough to conduct a planning process; MassDOT and other agencies across the state have done plenty of those. Planning is necessary but not sufficient. We have to commit state resources to actually deliver the goods.

In recent decades, transportation support from the federal government has been stagnant at best, with a few exceptions. And those funds have historically been to build new projects, not to maintain and repair them. For example, we already know that the cost of federally funded projects will increase at a faster rate than the funds to build them, so the project waiting list at the state's many MPOs will only get longer.

The prospect of new federal money sounds great, but we cannot count on it, even while we work with our Congressional delegation to make federal transportation policy as beneficial to Massachusetts as possible. 

Massachusetts’ key transportation challenges – keeping our existing infrastructure in good condition, expanding access to opportunity throughout the state, fighting climate change, and accommodating future growth – aren’t going away. The time is now for a concerted effort to meet those challenges, with state leadership.


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