Don’t let pandemic stifle bold transportation policy

Going small would be ‘historic missed opportunity’

WE ARE IN a crisis, with little apparent prospect of advancing toward a better future.

It’s not COVID-19 I’m talking about, not directly. But all things converge, and the state legislative response to our chronic, undebatable transportation crisis – a crisis that impacts the quality of the air we breathe, the mobility fairness and responsiveness we offer lower-income communities and people of color, the access to key destinations we provide to everyone, and the recovery of our small business economy – is looking wholly inadequate to the moment. It’s a historic missed opportunity.

The House of Representatives passed two transportation bills (a policy and revenue bill and a separate bond bill) earlier in the year, pre-COVID-19. I thought more could be done, but in retrospect, the House took some very positive steps forward, including taking the hard but necessary votes to raise the gas tax and TNC fees on ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. The Senate was about to consider its response to the House when COVID-19 disrupted everything. Many of us in the advocacy community hoped that with the passage of time, the Senate would ultimately craft a comprehensive transportation policy and revenue bill that would leverage what the House had done and take it to a new level, specifically to respond to the new realities presented by the pandemic.

Those realities include worsening traffic congestion, worsening air quality and worsening social and regional inequalities. We know that traffic is already increasing, and experts fear that the congestion and gridlock that plagued us pre-COVID will pale in comparison to what is on offer, unless we take steps now to cause former transit and rail users to return.

We know, from three respected university studies (Harvard, Boston University, and the UK’s Cambridge University), that long-term exposure to the particulate matter spewed out by automobiles and trucks is linked to significantly and measurably higher COVID-19 mortality rates, and overall greater COVID vulnerability. This is a public health and social equity issue, as emissions are higher in the lower-income communities that historically have hosted transportation systems entering the Metro Boston inner core communities.

We know that without road pricing in Metro Boston, the toll payers using the turnpike and harbor crossings will continue to be treated unfairly as compared to all other drivers in the region. And we know that the initiatives advanced by transit and rail advocates (and endorsed last November by the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board) that would begin to respond to historic patterns of racism and social inequity (the Better Bus initiative and the Regional Rail Phase 1 initiative) cannot move forward as planned without net new revenue.

COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to redirect our funding and our policies to build a more equitable, healthier, resilient transportation system.  Few want to return to a pre-COVID status quo that failed to deliver sustainable mobility equitably. The post-COVID economy, particularly with respect to small businesses, will simply not recover unless we invest quickly, deliberately and aggressively in a redesign of the urban public realm that makes it safer to walk, cycle and take bus transit.

The legislative response?

Well, a glimmer of hope remains as nothing has been finalized, but the Senate transportation bond bill about to be debated is a pale shadow of what many advocates had hoped would emerge from that body. A separate transportation funding bill hasn’t even been proposed by the Senate. Thus no gas tax increase, no increase for ride hailing services, no road pricing pilot.  Basically, nothing. And this is a particular disappointment because the Senate is led by smart, talented, progressive leaders, people I know and like and respect. How then to account for what looks to be a historic missed opportunity?

The idea that we can’t raise the gas tax at a time when gas prices have been at historic lows is mind boggling and wrongheaded. Yes, unemployment is high, but it is a pretty good rule of thumb that most people driving and parking today are working. This is exactly the time to raise the gas tax.

Ride hailing fees in Massachusetts remain embarrassingly, unfathomably low, disconnected from the highly negative impacts these services and companies have on society. The House enacted modest increases; the Senate proposes to do nothing. And the Senate simply kicks the can on road pricing, proposing yet another commission to study heaven knows what, until 2022, when another gubernatorial election year will undoubtedly kill the idea. What do we need to study? There is nothing about road pricing that is unproven, exotic, or untested. The technology is old, proven, reliable. And what’s truly remarkable about this is that is condemns everyone using the turnpike and tunnel crossings to decades more of regional inequity. What’s needed is a pilot program up and running within the next 12 months. What we are about to get is the legislative veneer of action that is really a recipe for delay and inaction.

What about the Governor’s Transportation Climate Initiative? The legislature could include provisions in the bond bill authorizing revenue anticipation notes against future anticipated TCI revenues. That would be a clear signal of support for the Governor’s important initiative, and it would provide real money in the short term for important projects and initiatives. What are we about to get? A big, juicy nothing burger. It’s hard to swallow. At this rate you can wave goodbye at any hope of achieving the governor’s stated goal of zero emissions by 2050.

That’s no exaggeration. At a time when we should have expected leaders across the board to respond to COVID-19 by redirecting our policies toward a more pandemic-resilient future, we are doubling down on one of the chief contributors to the poor air quality that makes people more vulnerable to bad health outcomes – auto mobility. The state Department of Transportation’s recent decision to reverse course and rebuild an elevated highway at Allston Landing, while not committing to keep two tracks on the Worcester Line in operation during construction, is but one example of how decision makers are behaving like it’s 1965, replicating the unsustainable mistakes of mid-20th century road building.

COVID-19 should be a powerful impetus for radical, impactful change. It shouldn’t be an excuse for delay or inaction. If we are going to emerge from this pandemic stronger and healthier and more resilient and more socially cohesive, we need decisive political action. I mean action in the spirit of FDR, whose message resonates as powerfully today as it did at the height of the Great Depression: what we need said FDR is “bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

We didn’t study our way out of the Great Depression, and we won’t study our way out of the current crisis. We need net new revenue in the short term to reimagine the urban public realm, to build the Complete Streets, dedicated bus lanes and protected cycling lanes that will support small businesses and promote public health by ensuring density without crowding.

We need a Regional Rail system that gets people to and from destinations more reliably and quickly with frequent all-day service and we need a system that doesn’t use highly polluting and unreliable diesel locomotives. Moving forward on the Fiscal Management and Control Board’s Phase 1 directive, which will improve access and mobility with a focus on social and environmental justice corridors, ought to be fast-tracked. The final transportation bond bill should have funding specifically directed toward this important initiative.

We need to fulfill the clear message of the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation, and move more people and fewer vehicles. This was a sustainability imperative. It is now a public health and social equity imperative.

We need to give bus riders throughout the state better, more frequent service, and in my opinion all unlinked bus trips should be free of charge. Bus transit is a public good and, once provided on a frequent, all-day schedule, a public health necessity. We can begin to make our public transportation system more egalitarian by making unlinked bus trips free for everyone. Doing so probably saves money over time, by eliminating the high cost of procuring and maintaining bus fare collection equipment and systems. I support free bus service as a better approach than means testing, which can quickly become another form of socioeconomic stigmatization and which still leaves future bus fare collection open to proof of payment, an unavoidable pathway to racial profiling. You can try to legislate to reduce that risk, but why even go down that path when it can be avoided?

Meet the Author

These initiatives combine to make our transportation system more responsive to the public health needs of a post-COVID world, and more responsive to the urgent imperative to build a more just and egalitarian society, and they all require net new revenue. Unless something happens to shake things up, none is seriously on offer. At a time when we should be laying the foundation for a better future, we are about to double down on the pre-COVID status quo in the transportation sector. No one should feel good about that.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.