How to start dealing with congestion

It’s time to put words and ideas into action – and quickly

HERE’S WHAT we know.

Traffic congestion in metro Boston has grown, is worsening, and is now measured as the worst in the nation – worse even than Los Angeles.

There is no strategy, no plan, to relieve this congestion in a meaningful way.

Here’s what we know.

Ridership on the MBTA Blue Line is skyrocketing, exceeding all expectations with unabated growth since 2016. This growth is attributable to a number of factors, including changing population patterns and the re-opening of the Government Center station in 2016 following a two-year closure for reconstruction (powerful proof that transit connectivity attracts riders).

We also know that traffic congestion at the Sumner Tunnel is worse than ever before recorded. Traffic at the tunnel has grown 47 percent since 2013, nearly 45 percent more than predicted by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. And we know that the use of Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft has exploded at Logan Airport, causing its tight and limited roadway system to be in significant gridlock during peak hours, making it harder for travelers to access their flights, and clogging East Boston streets.  Additionally, this increased use of transportation network companies may be softening the demand for parking at Logan Airport, the historic premier source of Massport funding.

There is no strategy or plan to alleviate the tunnel gridlock, to reduce the use of transportation network companies, to charge these ride-hailing apps for their impacts, or to connect the Red and Blue Lines in order to provide people with the transit access they need in order to reduce reliance on TNCs or private vehicles.

Here’s what we know.

Construction of a replacement to the elevated portion of the turnpike at Allston Landing will begin in the next few years, causing traffic congestion and delay conditions that will make today’s daily congestion nightmare on Interstate 90 look like a picnic.  Every person living in communities along the metro west and Worcester corridor will be deprived of reliable and convenient access to jobs, education, healthcare, and key destinations.

There is no plan to introduce frequent all -day service on the Worcester Line during construction – a service that could be put into place fairly quickly and at reasonably modest cost, the definition of an investment that provides a lot of bang for the buck.

Here’s one more thing that we know.

Most people, when they take a look at our current public transportation system, understand that significant change must begin sooner than later.  Change in how we fund transportation needs, change in how we think about mobility, change in how we treat public transportation and how we incentivize people to use it more.  The governor’s own commission on the future of transportation understood this when it noted the importance of “transforming roadways and travel corridors to move more people and support changing travel modes” and called for the “reinvention” of our current commuter rail system to one that maximizes ridership and economic benefits. The commission also said clearly, in words echoed by the governor, that the “mission and perspective of Massachusetts’ transportation agencies needs to be redefined to respond to the needs of people rather than the needs of vehicles.”

The focus must be not merely on the condition of the infrastructure, but also on planning to build a more sustainable and modern system, one that is responsive to our needs and our values. Achieving the vision of the governor’s commission – a vision many transit advocates share – requires stepped- up investment and also a reimagining of how the system provides services.  It’s time to put words and ideas into action.

The three issues I have highlighted here – worsening regional traffic congestion, the breakdown of mobility at Logan Airport and in East Boston, and the imminent collapse of mobility from metro west and Worcester to Boston – aren’t the only mobility issues facing us but they rank high on the list of those that require urgent attention. The good news is that there are effective solutions for each.  What’s lacking is the political will to commit to those solutions. What will it take?

The MBTA must embark on a deliberate transition away from today’s underperforming commuter rail service that underutilizes the intensive capital investment of prior generations (the tracks, stations, and rights of way) to a modern regional rail system that operates on a new service delivery model, offering fast, frequent, all-day service.  It requires putting money into the MBTA’s Capital Improvement Plan to fund engineering and environmental work on the Red-Blue connector beginning this year. It requires using capital funds to pay for frequent all-day service on the Worcester Line beginning prior to demolition of the Allston I-90 viaduct as mitigation for construction impacts (and as a highly impactful test of the efficacy of providing this type of service).  It means abandoning 20th century dirty diesel equipment and transitioning to an electric system, starting now on the Providence Line where we have had electric overhead wires for decades but still run slow, unreliable diesel locomotives.  And it means building high-level platforms at all stations that will enhance accessibility and speed up trip times – and completing that work before this governor leaves office in January 2023.

We can’t expect to reduce traffic congestion if we don’t give people better, more frequent and reliable regional rail service. We can’t expect to manage anticipated passenger growth at Logan Airport; planned growth in Kendall Square, at the Massachusetts General Hospital campus, and at Suffolk Downs; or traffic congestion at the harbor tunnels, if we don’t connect the Red and Blue Lines.  We can’t expect to adequately serve the mobility needs of those who live west of Boston along the Turnpike corridor if we don’t offer them frequent all-day rail service on the Worcester Line, the one and only truly effective way for those residents to gain reliable access to jobs and other key destinations.

A blueprint for action could be summarized as a six-point plan that can be advanced this year:

  1. Put real money into the capital investment plan to begin engineering and environmental work on the Red-Blue connector in 2019.
  2. Explore the efficacy of building the connector as a design/build project.
  3. Enact into law a bill that raises fees on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft and automatically increases them every time there is an MBTA fare hike. The bill should dedicate the new revenue to public transportation.
  4. Commit to running electric trains on the Providence Line by leasing electric locomotives (Amtrak Cities Sprinters) in the short term, and committing in the near term to a procurement of faster accelerating and more flexible electric multiple unit trainsets before the close of this administration in January 2023. For those MBTA rail officials who remain wedded to double-decked passenger rail cars, I note that New Jersey Transit recently ordered 113 double-deck electric multiple unit cars from Bombardier, introducing the first self-propelled multilevel railcars in the nation. That may not be the right answer for Massachusetts – the double-decker electric multiple unit consists procured by NJT contain a mix of cars which, as ordered, may be underpowered for the level of acceleration power necessary for a highly functioning Regional Rail system.  Yet it is some evidence that elsewhere in the region other transit agencies are thinking and acting creatively to improve rail service. We can do that here, too, with solutions that best meet our needs, and propel the Providence Line into the 21st
  5. Commit to providing mobility access to residents of Metro West and Worcester by introducing more frequent all day service on the Worcester Line and using capital funds to pay for the service as mitigation for the decade-long construction disruptions about to take place on Interstate 90.
  6. Commence design and engineering on a Blue Line connection to Lynn via a Blue Line/Commuter Rail connector at Wonderland station.

Funding for these programs must be found from existing sources or raised through new measures. One new measure will be the cornerstone of a regional Transportation Climate Initiative, a carbon tax on gasoline.  Massachusetts has committed to join the climate initiative. The Legislature and the governor should commit 100 percent of the money generated from the initiative in metro Boston to these projects.

My instincts tell me that this is a propitious moment in time, a time when people support and insist upon decisive action, a time when policymakers have the courage and commitment to move forward with ideas that may seem bold but are, in essence, sensible and straightforward.  It’s a time when we have lost the luxury of kicking the can, and I sense that we are more willing than ever to confront the urgent need to act without delay.

Meet the Author

Politics and policy may be in a rare moment of alignment.  Stay tuned.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board of directors. He is a principal at Trimount Consulting.