On TNCs, Red-Blue connector, and tolls

A bold move to change course seems possible

IT’S BEEN A BUSY TIME for transportation policy making in Massachusetts, and a promising moment when there appears to be some alignment among legislative leaders that something bold and significant needs to be done to change course and properly fund our transportation needs now and into the future.  I want to focus today on two items that I think have far-reaching implications.

Tackling urban traffic congestion

 Massport’s recent attempt to tame the impacts of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) serving Logan Airport travelers fell a bit short of its original intent as Uber and Lyft pulled out all the stops to disrupt the agency’s well-intentioned initiative.  Rather than stick to the original plan proposed by staff, the Massport board voted to adopt a hybrid of sorts, reducing the new fee structure and allowing TNCs to continue curbside drop-offs at peak morning hours at the less busy arrivals level of each terminal. Still, the Massport plan is designed to gradually relieve pressure on the growing traffic gridlock that plagues its internal roadway system and spills over into adjacent East Boston.  It is a beginning, and my guess is that the carve-out for morning hours will quickly prove unworkable, and Massport will be returning to its first principles.

The Massport/TNC kerfuffle was prominent in the news but it should not distract from a larger point: the traffic conditions at Logan, in East Boston, and at the Sumner Tunnel have worsened faster than anyone anticipated, and will continue to worsen because Massport’s watered-down initiative, by itself, cannot make a material difference to the status quo mess.  Other agencies – notably the MBTA and MassDOT, need to step up and do their part to relieve the groaning levels of traffic congestion plaguing this part of the city.

The MBTA has it within its power to act, and act quickly, to improve transit access to Logan Airport. Step 1 is to properly fund the design/engineering of a subway connection between the Red and Blue Lines, and enter into contracts to commence that work before the end of this calendar year.  Now that the connector is officially listed as a “next priority” project on the Focus 40 planning document, it must be properly funded and advanced forward.  The old trick of listing a project on a plan and then killing it by not funding it, or by not advancing necessary design/engineering work, won’t fly. Transit advocates have seen that movie, and they know the plot by heart.  Connecting the Red and Blue Lines may be the single most effective and cost-efficient way to improve transit to Logan Airport.  Yet the agency remains stuck in a lethargy that defies explanation.

I spoke recently with a friend who lives near Central Square.  He spent nearly $40 on an Uber to Logan because he simply could not bear the thought of taking the Red Line to the Silver Line to Logan. And who can blame him? The ride was too long and the Silver Line too inefficient to make the trip attractive. If there had been a Red-Blue connector, he would gladly have taken a simple and straightforward transit trip to Logan. That story gets repeated every day, and probably accounts for significant needless automobile trips through East Boston to Logan Airport.

If improving access to Logan was the only benefit of the Red-Blue connector, it would be worthwhile as a major sustainability initiative.  But it will accomplish much more.  It relieves pressure on the rest of the system, particularly Park Street and Government Center stations, which are at capacity most of the time today, and will be slammed with new riders as soon as the Green Line extension project opens for revenue service. It provides transit equity to workers and others in East Boston who lack the transit connectivity needed to make their daily commute efficient and convenient.  This was underscored in a 2013 Dukakis Center report, The Toll of Transportation, which advocated for improving and expanding transit options and particularly noted that in East Boston, 77 percent of transit riders found the lack of a convenient transit ride was a serious mobility problem.  East Boston, an economic justice community with over 50 percent of eligible residents lacking a driver license, continues to suffer with the reality of a subway line that lacks essential connectivity to jobs, healthcare, and opportunity.

Finally, the Red-Blue connector opens up access to and from the new mega-development at Suffolk Downs.  The city of Boston ought to commit a significant portion of the $170 million of project mitigation money being offered by the developer, HYM Investment Group, to the design, engineering, and environmental work necessary to jump start the Red-Blue Connector – a project that, once completed, will raise the value of the Suffolk Downs site (note to HYM: spending some of your money to advance this project helps improve the value of your project).

Of course, the MBTA and MassDOT should also collaborate to improve the Silver Line service to Logan (and Chelsea) by letting busses use the dedicated ramp into the Ted Williams Tunnel. This nagging issue has yet to be resolved even though advocates and local elected leaders have been promised that it would be. This improvement is simple to put into place and comes at no cost to anyone.  Why it remains an unfulfilled promise is a mystery that perhaps some current officials will illuminate in their memoirs.

Regional tolls: Has the time come?

Senate President Karen Spilka called recently for exploration of using that classic user fee – tolls – as a way to raise the net new revenue we need to properly manage our statewide transportation system.  Her remarks are so on-point they deserve repeating here: “Our best ideas won’t matter if we can’t find a way to make a 21st century transportation infrastructure a reality — and find a way to pay for it.” Spilka called for tolls on a regionally equitable basis – something that makes a good deal of sense and that may be achievable given today’s political landscape.

The palatability of toll highways has changed as the collection of revenue has become more opaque.  In the old days, when payment was made in a cash transaction at a toll plaza, the uniquely transparent approach to toll collection reinforced anti-toll sentiment.  You actually had to take money out from your pocket and hand it over to a stranger.  In today’s world of all-electronic tolls, most drivers barely know how much they pay in tolls, as the transaction is made via credit card or bank account and, let’s be honest, how many people pay detailed attention to their toll expenditures.  It is the classic example of out of sight, out of mind.

Road pricing is a proven way to reduce traffic congestion and Massachusetts (especially metro Boston) is experiencing the worst traffic congestion conditions in the nation.  And while road pricing is one important way to assess people for their actual impacts on roads, the environment, and overall quality of life in the region, pricing alone won’t effectively trigger the levels of modal shift that are necessary to achieve meaningful congestion relief.  To do that, the state must couple road pricing with a major investment in our intercity rail system, moving from the current antiquated commuter rail service to a modern, electrified regional rail service that offers service all day at convenient frequencies. If you are trying to incentivize people to move out of their cars, you need to both properly price the use of the roads and offer a viable mobility alternative.

Massachusetts can no longer delay the transition to a regional rail system, and this effort can begin in earnest by taking relatively low cost steps to fully electrify the Providence Line and commence frequent, all-day service on the Worcester Line as mitigation for the planned disruptions to Interstate 90 during reconstruction and relocation of the Allston viaduct. MassDOT must commit to keeping a reasonable measure of access available to residents along the Worcester Line corridor, and that means keeping two tracks open at all times during highway reconstruction and keeping trains moving all day rather than sitting idle (as they now do) in inefficient layover areas.

Meet the Author

Senate President Spilka’s call for a regionally equitable toll network is also essential if we are going to advance pricing.  Public and political acceptance of road pricing will depend in some significant part on its perception as an approach that is regionally fair.  We cannot expect to price only those drivers using the turnpike or the harbor tunnels and think that will pass muster – it will likely reinforce the long-standing resentments that drivers using those facilities have nurtured for decades.  We are all in this together, and the solutions to traffic congestion and the approaches to generating net new revenue must have a regionally equitable overlay.

James Aloisi is a former state state secretary of transportation, a principal in Trimount Consulting, and a member of the TransitMatters Board.