Salvaging an unsatisfying legislative session on transportation

5 recommendations for the House-Senate conference committee

THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE the year for the Massachusetts Legislature to deliver a major overhaul of the state’s transportation system. The stars had begun to align in early March when the House passed a pair of bills that raised revenue and authorized key transportation projects across the Commonwealth. Then came coronavirus, economic calamity, and an important, national conversation about race and police brutality.

These far-reaching challenges understandably knocked transportation down Beacon Hill’s priority list and dulled some lawmakers’ sense of urgency. Last week, the state Senate passed a bill heavy on project authorizations, but light on policy change and devoid of new revenue. This less ambitious approach only means perpetuating an inequitable status quo that leaves black residents with longer bus commutes than their white counterparts, and black, Asian, and Hispanic residents disproportionately breathing vehicle tailpipe exhaust.

Still, the conference committee that will now sort out differences between the House and Senate bills has an opportunity to advance some worthy proposals. It must begin to answer pressing questions such as: How can our transportation system buttress economic recovery? How do we reduce the public health impacts of a transportation system that is our state’s largest source of air pollution? How do we address deep racial and economic inequity that is now more prominent and pressing than ever?

Meet the Author

Chris Dempsey

Former head / former candidate, Transportation for Massachusetts / State auditor
What follows is an (opinionated) insider’s guide to the committee’s work, including recommendations for what should emerge from the legislative process.

  • Commit to raise resources: The need for more statewide funding remains the most significant (though not the sole) barrier to improving the Commonwealth’s transportation system in every corner of the state. House conferees should push their Senate colleagues hard to agree to new revenue before the end of the session on July 31.
  • Harmonize funding and incentives: Our state government perversely provides subsidies for driving that dwarf those provided for public transportation. Since 1991 the state gas tax has increased by just 14 percent, while bus fares have jumped 140 percent in Springfield and a staggering 300 percent at the MBTA. The message that sends to commuters: drive more, take transit less. And the result? Drivers sit mired in the nation’s worst traffic congestion, carbon emissions and harmful pollutants increase, and transit service beyond the Route 128 corridor remains meager or non-existent. Fixing this requires raising the price of driving (with progressive mitigation for low-income households) and investing more in public transportation. The Legislature must not shy away from user fees when it comes time to raise revenue for transportation. Both chambers approved a Commission on Roadway and Congestion Pricing, which will help lay the groundwork for long-overdue analysis and action.
  • Lower economic barriers to accessing public transit: A monthly commuter-rail pass can cost $388 per month. A means-tested fare program like ones in Seattle and New York would give lower-wage workers a more affordable option. Both the House and Senate wisely support language to further this concept for the MBTA.
  • Empower local voters: A proposal to create regional ballot initiatives is a bright spot in the Senate’s bill. Regional ballot initiatives allow voters at the municipal and regional level to raise new revenue for local and regional transportation projects such as sidewalk improvements, transit stations, bike-share systems, and multi-use rail trails. Forty-one other states give voters this power. Massachusetts should, too.
  • Update regulations and fees on Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft: The Senate’s bill would create pioneering requirements for these companies to share anonymized data with transportation planners. The House proposed updating fees on these companies to reflect the impact that the 90 million trips per year they provide have on our congested roads, a change with which Gov. Charlie Baker agrees. The conference committee should take the best of both bills and make the state’s regulations on Uber and Lyft among the most effective in the country.
By approving these measures, the conference committee can make the most of an unsatisfying legislative session. But no matter what is accomplished in conference, House and Senate leaders must commit to further action in the future. That larger transportation overhaul still awaits.

Chris Dempsey is the director of Transportation for Massachusetts.