Rural transportation article fell short

I-90 Allston is about fixing it first – and better

A recent article in Commonwealth that undertook to advance the worthy goal of transportation investment equity for rural counties and communities in Massachusetts fell so far short of making its case persuasively that it requires a response. I’d like to focus this response on three specific points.

First, the authors would find widespread agreement among sustainable mobility advocates to the proposition that we should devote federal and state dollars to fixing the road and bridge network we have rather than expanding it.  Using the Interstate 90 project in Allston as an example of their point misses the mark as it presents an inaccurate description of what is happening in Allston, and it trips over the wire of setting one region against the other.

For the record, the I/90 project in Allston has roots in one fact that all stakeholders agree to: the elevated highway has deteriorated to a point where it faces serious safety issues, and some sort of intervention must be undertaken. The ongoing debate focuses on whether that intervention will be simply replacing the failing elevated highway with another, or whether MassDOT will act responsibly and use this as an opportunity to create a vibrant, people-friendly multi-modal center at West Station, with an at-grade replacement of the highway.  That is not highway expansion; this is building back better.

It also is self-defeating for sustainability advocates to make their case using a “divide and conquer” approach. The struggle to advance sustainable mobility across the Commonwealth won’t be won if like-minded advocates from different regions are pitted against one another.  The framing of any advocacy should be focused on how it provides regional or social equity (or both) as a foundational element of its worthiness.

Second, it is disappointing to read an article about sustainability that places almost all its attention on auto mobility and barely references the urgent need to provide regional transit systems a must-needed permanent funding boost.  Regional transit can be a viable solution for many in our rural counties if we invest in more equipment and drivers, providing more frequent and reliable service to key regional destinations (job centers, schools, healthcare, and shopping). This requires a significant level of new investment in those systems, not just for electric buses, but for more buses running more frequently and better schedules in the short term. That new investment means funding for both operating and capital needs.

Third, anyone who advocates for TCI funding (the carbon tax on gasoline) and ties its use to promoting electric vehicle infrastructure needs to address the unavoidable conundrum that decarbonization focused on electrifying auto mobility means that the funding available from TCI (and the gas tax) get reduced, inevitably down to zero. How will Massachusetts replace this lost revenue? (And please don’t answer that question by saying “with a tax on millionaires”, because then you have turned the Fair Share initiative into a zero-sum game, which is not what anyone is bargaining for).

My answer to that question – how we replace TCI and the gas tax as we transition to electric mobility – is this: road pricing. Road pricing (especially using the “charge per vehicle mile traveled” approach) can be regionally and socially equitable because you can make adjustments for rural counties, and you can means test the fee to ensure its fairness and affordability. Other advocates don’t need to agree with me on this, but they do need to have a responsible, viable answer to it. So, too, do Gov.  Charlie Baker and Environmental Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, whose statewide decarbonization plan puts everyone in an EV by 2050 but fails to address how we replace $1 billion or more in lost revenue as a result. Now is the time to be having this discussion, and the Legislature and the governor ought to be authorizing pilot road pricing programs in the short term to begin the process of transition.

Meet the Author

I think it is important to bring attention to the needs of rural Massachusetts, and I have supported regional equity my entire career. But those of us who seek to advance sustainable mobility and persuade others to be like minded need to make our case in the best ways possible. I’m sorry to be writing this, but I didn’t think Sunday’s article was as persuasive or impactful as it could, or should, have been.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.