Mass. needs to prioritize shovel-worthy projects

Focus should be on transportation transformation, climate change

THE AMERICAN JOBS PLAN marks a huge opportunity for our state and country. These funds, in addition to those provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), could bring a transformational investment to the Massachusetts transportation system, which for too long has focused on moving cars instead of people.

Like states across the country, Massachusetts is preparing to put these billions of dollars in federal funding toward “shovel ready” infrastructure projects. These investments are designed to lay the groundwork for a strong, long-term economic recovery. But what do shovel-ready projects look like in Massachusetts? Most projects currently on our long-term transportation plan have languished for years. And we learned from former President Obama’s stimulus package that it’s important to fund not just “shovel-ready” projects, but “shovel-worthy” projects.

Shovel-worthy projects would not only help the Commonwealth recover from COVID-19, but position us to meet our climate goals as well. This new round of federal funding gives us an opportunity to reconsider what types of transportation projects we prioritize, and to ensure we make transformative investments that fund under-invested communities while bringing our transportation system into the 21st century.

Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, our car-centric transportation system was wreaking havoc on our health and the planet. Our state’s transportation sector is known for record traffic congestion, unreliable transit service, and pollution-causing greenhouse gas emissions. The pandemic has further exacerbated these woes, exposing inequitable access to healthcare, jobs, and basic needs, and unraveling our former travel patterns. Decreased car travel meant cleaner air for a very short time, but plummeting transit ridership also upended short and long-term budgets at the MBTA and other transit agencies.

Electrifying our public transit bus fleets in every corner of Massachusetts, expanding rail service statewide, and making MBTA service more frequent and accessible will only happen if we learn from the past and urge decision-makers to consider projects that go beyond bridge painting and pre-pandemic service. Prioritizing shovel-worthy projects is the only way we will make our transportation system stronger and more climate resilient.

Massachusetts needs a concrete strategy to use the billions of new federal dollars, which in all likelihood will continue to flow into the state over the next decade given President Biden’s continued push to pass a once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure package. We will only be able to take advantage of these new resources and make good on our long-term climate goals to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century if we use them wisely.

Cities and towns in the Commonwealth have long wish-lists of infrastructure projects that they want to pursue. However, many cities and towns lack the funding to do the necessary studies to have them listed on the state’s transportation plans. The Baker administration should set aside money to allow cities and towns to invest in those critical planning and design efforts that unlock more transformative investments now and in the future, with a particular focus on multi-municipal and regional projects.

We stand at a critical juncture, both in our effort to rebound from the pandemic and in our fight to stop the climate crisis. There is renewed momentum behind the push to mitigate climate change and make the Commonwealth’s transportation system cleaner, healthier, and more accessible. But this bold vision will only become a reality if we plan accordingly.

Meet the Author

Lizzy Weyant

Director of government affairs, Metropolitan Area Planning Council
Meet the Author

John Stout

Transportation advocate, MassPIRG
We must seize this opportunity to shift our travel patterns for the better and plan for new ways to get ourselves around.

Lizzi Weyant is director of government affairs at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and John Stout is transportation advocate at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG.