Broken transportation system needs new revenue

Commission’s report provides a roadmap to the future

SINCE JANUARY, the segment of the Massachusetts civic community with an interest in transportation and climate change has been waiting for the report requested by Gov. Charlie Baker of his Commission on the Future of Transportation. Charged with tackling topics that will influence the economy and landscape of the Commonwealth for years to come, the 18-member commission released its finished product last week.

Even without a year’s worth of study, we’ve known that transportation is broken in Massachusetts. The drivers sitting in traffic day in and day out know that it’s broken. The patrons of regional transit authorities whose service is being cut throughout the state know it’s broken. Commuters crossing their fingers each time they approach a shabby-looking bridge know it’s broken. And riders of the T and commuter rail hopelessly waiting in the winter cold for a delayed train know it’s broken.

Who else knows? Employers whose businesses are hurt by employees and customers not being able to reliably get from point A to point B. And climate scientists, who know that transportation is the top source of the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions. The sad state of transportation in Massachusetts has been an open secret. The one thing that’s unknown? Whether or not we’ll step up and fix it.

The commission’s report paints a picture of a transportation system in need of modernization.  This dovetails with a 2017 Federal Transit Administration report which outlined  that the MBTA had more mechanical failures than any other rail system in the country. Another study conducted by MassMoves, and commissioned by the Massachusetts Senate, identified a $1.7 billion funding gap to maintain state highways, bridges, and tunnels, along with a $7.3 billion gap to bring the MBTA to a state of good repair. These costs only grow with each passing year of inaction.

What would meaningful action on transportation actually look like? Here are some key ingredients:

Raise revenue. Significant new revenue, raised in a way that does not disproportionately burden the least fortunate among us, is necessary to support the statewide system we have, and to invest in expanded service. Emerging proposals like the Transportation Climate Initiative provide leaders at the state and regional levels with the opportunity to make progress both on our transportation needs and our climate goals.

Continue reforms. MassDOT and the MBTA deserve credit for the work their teams have done around reforms and efficiencies, including modernizing the procurement process, and operational improvements. While reform alone will not generate the funding needed to bolster the state’s infrastructure, it will a) manifest some savings, b) improve performance, and c) increase public trust in the process. Reforms such as making representative governance of transit permanent, supporting improvements to regional systems, and expanding the definition of reform will promote long-term stability and growth in a statewide system.

Lift up what we have. In order to support our businesses and achieve our environmental goals, we must make the necessary investments to bring our infrastructure to a state of good repair. The public has a right to expect routine maintenance and basic modernization of the state’s transportation system, including employing existing technologies to improve service and exploring innovations such as congestion pricing to alleviate crowding on our roads .

Prioritize equity. Our current transportation system fails underserved communities in multiple ways, chief among them limiting access to opportunities and threatening hefty impacts of climate change. A plan for the future should include expanding service and frequency to those most often left behind, at fares that are equitable. Plans must also be thoughtful about how to mitigate the impacts of gentrification that often follow improvements in transportation.

Don’t recreate the wheel.  The Commonwealth’s transportation system of tomorrow already exists in other places. Mexico City and Bogota have been leaders in bus rapid transit. No place does bicycle infrastructure better than the Netherlands. Seattle’s water ferries are enviable, and London uses resources generated by congestion pricing to invest in pedestrian improvements. We can learn from their experiences, make modifications as needed, and bring the world’s best transportation ideas to Massachusetts.

Meet the Author

Joseph Boncore

Massachusetts state senator, First Suffolk and Middlesex from Winthrop
Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
As the Commission on the Future of Transportation’s report makes clear, there is much work to be done in order for Massachusetts to reach our climate goals and create infrastructure that works for everyone. But our collective bookshelves are full of decades’ worth of reports outlining similar findings. We don’t have time to further clutter the shelves. Creating the future of transportation starts today. It’s on us to deviate from our current path, and make our systems across the Commonwealth efficient, inclusive, and sustainable.

Sen. Joseph Boncore represents the First Suffolk and Middlesex District in the Massachusetts Senate and Jesse Mermell is the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership.