Mass. at climate, transportation crossroads

Massive long-term investments needed to meet challenges

THERE IS A DEEPENING LEVEL of discomfort permeating business and government leaders in Massachusetts today. The economy is strong; unemployment is low; cranes dot the skyline over greater Boston, with new luxury housing and office towers expanding this historic landscape. But we all know that something is missing from this picture.

The “under toad” (See The World According to Garp…) is the ubiquitous, short-term, micro-scale thinking that has been adopted by our policymakers in both business and government, with the corresponding unwillingness to pay for and make the long-term capital investments that are required to secure our region’s infrastructure in the 21st century. This critical failure is most apparent in two, converging areas: climate adaptation and transportation.

At a conference on “Financing Climate Resilience” sponsored by the Environmental Business Council and UMass Boston, the presentations and discussion were not focused on addressing the false doubts of the climate change deniers running Washington.  Instead, they were focused on strategies to address the real, quantitatively supported predictions of sea level rise and massive storm events in the next 25-50 years, with their disruptive impacts and resulting property damage, which is now effecting property insurance markets.

The scale and scope of the needed investment in a wide range of resilience measures is staggering. The UMass Boston Sustainability Solutions Lab estimates the total cost of near to mid-term district level adaptation measures designed to protect key areas of vulnerability in Boston to be between $1 and $2.4 billion. Regional-level measures would be an additional $7-15 billion. To address this investment gap, advocates call for the creation of a state-level climate resilience fund and district resilience improvement districts to finance needed flood protection projects.

On top of this major capital investment need to address merely the survival of our city and region, there is another looming investment deficit that is of equal significance and made more pronounced over the most recent years as a by-product of our booming economy: the need to address the current level of congestion that exists in the greater Boston region today and invest in our transportation infrastructure.

While the governor has been focused on stabilizing the MBTA and rebuilding core capacities at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Massachusetts economy, particularly in the 164-community metropolitan Boston area, has been growing like wildfire. Since 2000, over 233,000 new jobs have been added to the region. Much of this growth has occurred along transit corridors or the “15 Growth Clusters” described in a recent report released by A Better City entitled “The Transportation Dividend.” Over 650,000 jobs are now within a 30-minute transit trip and a quarter mile walk, if the transit system is working. But, MBTA ridership is down from 2015, with corresponding increases in traffic congestion, as commuters elect a longer and more costly but more reliable, commuting option.

Just to reach the 2007 “State of Good Repair” at the MBTA would require more than $7 billion in needed capital upgrades, which would produce more than $400 million in additional annual benefits, according to the ABC study. Major additional investments to enhance the core capacity of the rapid transit backbone on the Red, Orange, and Green lines are also needed. These investments should be followed by a major reimagining of what an all-electric commuter rail system could be, with frequent, reliable, and clean powered regional service from Providence to the south, Worcester and Springfield to the west, and Manchester and Portland to the north. Other transit enhancements and solutions are already imagined and in conceptual stages of planning, including a north-south rail connector, a network of bus rapid transit corridors, and a comprehensive water ferry service in Boston Harbor, all of which would provide viable transit alternative options to commuters and relieve our congested roadways.

It is the absence of any discussion of how we are going to finance these critical investments, which we all know are required to address these challenges, that is the cause of the angst in our business and government leaders. And while we presently leave it to each individual business and home owner to solve, with some property developers adopting “best practices” in building today’s skyscrapers (assuming a sea level rise in the range of three feet; ground floor flood protections; utilities on rooftops; on-site flood storage measures, shuttle buses to transit hubs, etc.) the absence of a unified funding mechanism to protect and enhance the public infrastructure from storm conditions (water, sewer, tunnels, transit, energy, and communications equipment) leaves everything at risk. Our communities are only as strong as their weakest link. Imagine the Boston Seaport, with its collection of shiny new $ billion dollar buildings, without water, sewer, power, passable roadways, or transit access. Each individual building may be protected by its own sustainable adaptation plan; but who will be working or living there without power, water, or access?

The reality of this troubling picture is that we have no plans even under discussion for investing in solutions to address these twin problems today. There are a number of options to explore. The role of private capital in public/private partnerships (or “P3s”) is one such area that warrants closer examination in Massachusetts. Other alternatives such as carbon taxes and value capture should also be examined.  But the absence of even a discussion of these issues is at the root of the wide-spread discomfort amongst business and government leaders today. We all know that something must be done to address these truly existential topics. And soon.

Meet the Author
The right thing to do is for public and private leaders to come together and embrace a long-term plan of action. The plan should build upon much of the good work that has already been assembled with Climate Ready Boston and the Barr Foundation. We should immediately launch steps for an effort to build a resilient and climate-adapted infrastructure that protects all populations. Simultaneously, we must take the necessary steps to adopt and fund a 21st century regional mobility system for the Boston area. If we fail to make these investment now, it will only get more expensive and require more extreme measures down the road.

Douglas McGarrah is a partner at the Foley Hoag law firm.