An action plan to address the Mass. transportation crisis

Incremental repairs of an out-of-date system simply don’t cut it

THE RECENT REPORTS on the New England governors meeting to discuss the crisis in transportation in the region gives us some hope that Gov. Charlie Baker is now open to new investments in our transportation system. But what is needed now is a comprehensive action plan to address the frustrating state of congestion on our local and regional roadways and the regular and costly delays on the commuter rail and transit systems.

These twin conditions on highways and the rails have created the perfect storm for us in Massachusetts, and it will only get worse as we return from summer vacation. Enough of a crisis for Baker to agree to work with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Amtrak on a high speed electrified rail service connection between Providence and Boston. But shouldn’t we also have high speed electrified rail service between Worcester and Boston? And Springfield? And how does this Providence to Boston service square with the Baker administration’s commitment to build the South Coast rail project, which promises to provide 90 minute rides between New Bedford and Boston?

Clearly we need a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to modernizing and enhancing our commuter rail system in order to have the impact on congestion at the scale that is needed.  We cannot expect to de-congest our roadways (i.e. reduce the number of people driving their cars) if the transit alternatives that we offer are themselves congested, unreliable, unsafe, and expensive.

And this condition is now impacting our economy. Employers are reporting recruiting difficulties and employees are leaving their current positions and moving out of the area due to the congestion and commuting challenges, along with the high cost of housing in the Boston metropolitan area. The Mass Biotechnology Council recently issued a report showing that jobs in this sector grew last year at a 6.8 percent rate and by nearly 20,000 jobs over the last 10 years. The report warns that this growth will not continue unless the transportation system for biotech workers improves and declares that we are at a “breaking point” on this issue.

In the late 1980s, when the “Massachusetts Miracle” was cooling off and we were headed into the first tech sector downturn, the Commonwealth built the Big Dig, which fundamentally changed the city’s landscape and vastly improved the region’s highway system. Government and business leaders at that time could have elected to simply replace the unsafe and outdated eight-lane Fitzgerald Expressway, which stood over where the Rose Kennedy Greenway thrives today.  Instead, together, they decided to build the modern underground highway system that exists today, including the third harbor tunnel that greatly enhanced regional access to Logan Airport. And it made a difference.

Ask someone living in the Boston area in the 1980s what it was like to get in or out of the city or to Logan Airport, especially from the south and west of the city. Many in Boston today don’t remember life before the Big Dig and only embrace the popular negative views of the project. But without that massive and successful investment in our infrastructure, Boston would never have realized the massive new investments and the city’s expanding employment picture that defines the vibrant city of Boston today. The economic benefits of this project have been well documented in studies published by A Better City and others.

Now, 30 years later, we are at another critical juncture, with an outdated and broken-down rail and transit system. In cities around the world we see what a modern, efficient, safe, and reliable transit system can do to relieve congestion and improve air quality.  With the wealth of this city and region, there is simply no good reason why we can’t have such a modern transit system here in Massachusetts.

The Baker administrations has made some important strides to address system deficiencies and has advanced the Green Line extension project.  But the current approach, focused on small, incremental repairs on an out-of-date system, will not deliver what we need to address the congestion crisis and the inadequacy of our present rail and transit system.  As Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said herself in her recent report on the congestion crisis: “We are at a tipping point on congestion.” But an incremental repairs approach is the equivalent to deciding 30 years ago to simply replace the deck panels on the crumbling elevated Fitzgerald Expressway  (which was advocated by some leaders at the time), instead of building the Big Dig. Imagine the city today with the elevated, eight-lane expressway in place of the Rose Kenney Greenway. What a short-sighted and mistaken decision that would have been.

We have an out-of-date, diesel-powered commuter rail system that runs infrequently, unreliably, and at a high cost to passengers. We have a deficient, early 20th century transit system that operates at over-capacity and is unreliable and increasingly unsafe. The Baker administration is adding “reconditioned” mid-20th century diesel locomotives discarded by other rail operators to improve service reliability on commuter rail and to slowly purchase new cars and make repairs and small improvements to transit signals that are no longer even manufactured. Shouldn’t we be doing more than this and can’t we deliver system improvements sooner?

In the view of many, the time for slow and steady incremental improvements to our rail and transit system has passed. If Massachusetts is to emerge from the coming recession in a stronger and more economically and environmentally vibrant and sustainable position, now is the perfect time for bold action on infrastructure investment. Borrowing costs are low. Recession is on the horizon. It is a perfect time to stimulate the local economy with public investments that will deliver efficiency to the economy and the commuting regional workforce.

I offer the following suggestions for an action plan to serve as the foundation for comprehensive legislative approval, built upon four critical action pillars, which I believe will positon the Commonwealth for success for the remainder of the 21st century.

Strengthen MassDOT/MBTA operations, accountability, and capacity     

  • Fix the MBTA retirement system and implement other recommended management reforms at the MBTA, so that we can be confident that funds are spent wisely and not wasted.
  • Direct MassDOT and MBTA to hire outside private sector expertise to manage both procurements and projects for the new capital investments in the system. This work can be supervised by Mass DOT/MBTA managers, using best practices from the MWRA Boston Harbor cleanup program and the MassDOT Accelerated Bridge programs.
  • Authorize use of alternative, more flexible procurement procedures to speed project contractor selection and accelerate construction projects.
Accelerate and fully fund the state of good repair at MassDOT and MBTA

  • Fully fund and implement a state of good repair program (which has been estimated by A Better City to be $8-$10 billion short in the governor’s $8 million bond bill) and accelerate the targeted completion date to 5-7 years, including transit, roads and bridge projects. Commuters want to know that conditions will improve in a near-term horizon. Work 24/7 on weekends and run bus service on transit routes, with dedicated lanes to provide equivalent or better weekend service.
  • Establish special project units within Mass DOT and the MBTA to implement an accelerated state of good repair program, supported by private procurement and construction expertise and resources.

Prepare a 21st Century transportation action plan

  • We have been saying “no” to worthy investments in our infrastructure for the last 30 years, due to constraints on available public resources. Now is the time to advance an agenda on this into action steps.
  • We must learn from the mistakes of the past, including the repercussions of not having a sound funding plan for the Big Dig, which did indeed cause other worthwhile investments to be shelved. But the lesson from that is not to forever forego important, large-scale investments in our infrastructure. Rather it is the importance of having a sound financial plan in place to pay for them. The job-creating investments in Boston and other areas of the Commonwealth in market-leading sectors of our economy all assume that we will provide a functioning rail, transit, and highway system. We must meet that demand or risk losing our competitive edge.
  • Costs for this level of comprehensive infrastructure investment are preliminary but give us an order of magnitude target for the funding discussion.  Smart, climate resiliency investments to protect our existing system alone are estimated at $5-7 billion. Broadly supported infrastructure highway and transit investments, which would otherwise be advanced but for resource constraints at Mass DOT and the MBTA, such as the electrification of all of commuter rail ($5 billion); long-postponed regional highway safety and congestion choke point relief projects, including the I-93/I-95 Interchanges, both north and south of Boston ($2 billion);  the I-91 reconstruction in Springfield ($2-3 billion); and high speed, electrified, rail links to Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield ($5 billion). Other worthwhile, potentially transformative, transit investments, such as the North/South Rail Link, the Red Line/Blue Line Connector, Silver Line Phase 3, and others, should all be carefully evaluated for their return on investment and not simply dismissed as too costly or too ambitious.
  • The action plan should be prepared by Mass DOT and submitted for ratification by the Massachusetts Legislature in conjunction with their development of plans to fund this investment.  The Action Plan must be geographically balanced in its allocation of resources and include a list of key investments to be made in the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure for completion no later than 2040. Such a plan will send a message that the people of the Commonwealth can come together to reach consensus and make hard decisions that will secure the competitive economic future of the state.
Meet the Author
Adopt infrastructure funding programs

  • The Legislature should target raising approximately $2.5 billion per year in order to provide sufficient funding for the number of important highway, rail, and transit investments that will be included in the action plan. Funding sources should include the tolling of the Metropolitan Highway System, border tolls, congestion pricing, gas tax increase, the transportation climate initiative, value capture, and perhaps others. Investments in our infrastructure should come from the users of that infrastructure. Reliance on broad-based taxes should be minimized.
  • The fact that we only toll the harbor tunnels, I-90 and the Tobin Bridge is simply an accident of history. They were all built before the Federal Interstate Highway System was enacted in 1956 and needed a source of revenue to secure the bonds that were sold to pay for their construction. Placing a modest toll on I-93 and I-95 and the entire Metropolitan Highway System, using state-of-the-art toll gantries, would be a fair and equitable highway user policy and have minimal impact on drivers. It could also facilitate experimentation with congestion pricing – long overdue in Boston.

Douglas M. McGarrah is a partner at Foley Hoag.