Can Massachusetts avoid the return of horrible congestion?

If you thought traffic was bad before the pandemic, wait until this fall.

“I don’t think anyone wants to take the T,” said Emily, who has driven to work since last summer, but recently restarted taking the MBTA, due to the lack of a parking space and worsening traffic.

In 2019, Boston area drivers already faced soul-crushing congestion. While traffic dropped drastically during the pandemic, as of late June, MassDOT Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said at a meeting that traffic on most roadways is back to 2019 levels, and travel times are returning to their previous lengths. And that’s with many Boston area companies deciding not to require workers to return to the office until September.

On this week’s episode of Mass Reboot, a Codcast series examining how COVID-19 affected Massachusetts and how the state is adjusting moving forward, House Transportation Chair Rep. William Straus and Monica Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council, a transportation management association and regional transit provider, talked about the anticipated uptick in traffic – and what can be done to address it.

Straus said a big part of the problem is people are not yet comfortable taking public transit due to the health risks of COVID-19. “I think what you’re seeing is a lot of the people on the roads are people who pre-pandemic might have used public transit, might have carpooled, but they’re not,” Straus said.

Tibbits-Nutt worried that without steps taken to alleviate the problem, a horrific congestion situation pre-pandemic will morph into “a parking lot across all of our highway systems.”

One unknown is how many workers will return to the office. Many offices are envisioning a hybrid model of work permanently. But Straus said there is still a need for the full system of roads, bridges, trains, and buses. He noted that transit is needed not just to get to work, but for general mobility. And despite all those who can work remotely, there are many employees – like emergency service workers – who must work in person.

Tibbits-Nutt said a big part of getting people out of their cars is figuring out how to provide better transportation options. “You have to make public transit better and more convenient than using a car,” she said. For example, 128 Business Council is looking into using money from private employers to create shuttle services, with vehicles equipped with trays, tables, and wi-fi.

Straus stressed the importance of regional rail, like the planned South Coast Rail, which would connect Boston to cities like New Bedford and Fall River. Today, commuting from those areas could take two hours by car, due to traffic. Tibbits-Nutt said regional rail could help alleviate congestion if train service runs frequently enough and with affordable enough fares. Tibbits-Nut said she lives a 15-minute walk away from a commuter rail station – but the train runs infrequently, and it is cheaper for her to own a car than take the train.

There have been discussions on Beacon Hill and in local communities about the possibility of lowering or eliminating fares, whether on commuter rail lines, buses, or parts of the MBTA system, but so far no action has been taken.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Tibbits-Nutt talked about the importance of providing accessible bus service, with dedicated lanes for buses. Straus said there could be ways to use streets more efficiently, to provide more travel lanes while moving parking off the street.

Of course, the ability to improve transit enough that people are willing to take it will take money – and attempts to raise revenue have been controversial on Beacon Hill, and often faced opposition from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. “People are under the impression that the gas tax that they pay pays for them to drive on the road,” Straus said. “It actually doesn’t come anywhere near paying the cost of maintaining the road.”