Modal shift is answer to reducing congestion

HOV lanes, smart tech can work

Second of four parts

I remember sitting in the audience in a ballroom at the Copley Plaza Hotel in October 1999, listening to remarks from then-Turnpike Authority Chairman and Big Dig Chief Jim Kerasiotes. Kerasiotes was announcing the opening of the Leverett Circle Connector, a spur from I-93 traveling south into Boston diverting traffic toward Leverett Circle and Storrow Drive. It was one of the Big Dig engineering feats – an 830-foot-long bridge carrying four lanes of traffic between I-93 and Storrow Drive. It was also a big selling point for the project, opening up new capacity across the Charles River, something that rarely happens in older urban environments. This new capacity brought the promise of reduced traffic congestion and more efficient traffic flow.

Fast forward to 2014. If you travel into Boston on I-93 from the north most days after the morning rush hour, you will encounter traffic congestion somewhere around Medford. That congestion is often being caused by the Leverett Connector, backing traffic up into I-93 because it is packed full of cars barely moving. What was designed and built as additional capacity to relieve an overburdened highway system has become a chronically congested feeder ramp. I suppose this is proof that “if you build it, they will come,” but there is another lesson to be learned here. Adding new highway capacity will help relieve congestion in the short term, but over time this strategy fails to address the larger factors causing the problem. In the case of the Leverett Connector, no one has yet found a solution to the largest reason why it doesn’t work well: it feeds into a tight, congested road network that is hampered by a complex web of traffic signals that prevent free flow. Given the location, at the entrance to Storrow Drive, it is unlikely that this will ever be resolved in a way that makes the Connector work as the relief valve it was intended to become.

What can be done to reduce the chronic traffic congestion on the state and interstate highways providing access to and egress from Boston? The question prompts a larger discussion about highway congestion and capacity, current mobility trends and preferences, and the availability of sufficient revenue to implement meaningful strategies. One thing is certain: adding new highway capacity is not financially, environmentally, or practically viable as a strategy to reduce congestion. The era of highway expansion is over. Our future lies in creating, for the first time in our history, a truly multi-modal transportation network – a robust menu of meaningful alternatives that enable people to choose among modes that, by and large, offer relatively equivalent mobility.

Of course, the Central Artery project required significant new investment in transit both as part of the environmental permitting process for the new highway system but also because the planners knew then what is obvious now: without a significant expansion and improvement of the public transportation system, the new highway system would revert to the kind of chronic congestion that turned the old elevated Central Artery into a parking lot for most of the day. Over the past six years we’ve made some progress advancing commitments to build a number of transit improvements, including double tracking certain commuter rail lines, expanding service to Worcester, and linking the Silver Line to South Station. But many critically needed expansions are either slow moving or not moving at all. The expansion of the Green Line to Route 16 in Medford is still years away, the first link of the Urban Ring has been promised but not built, there is no North/South rail link (nor any real prospect of one), there still is no Red/Blue Line connector, no serious planning for extending the Blue Line to Lynn, and the Silver Line groans as it reaches and exceeds capacity.

Getting any of these projects done requires money, and a good deal of it. But net new revenue can’t always or exclusively be given over to grand projects on a large scale. Cities and towns also need new revenue to promote safer streets, and a more multi-modal approach to mobility. There’s simply not enough money to pay for what we need. We’ve had report after report alert us to the problem, including a 2007 Transportation Finance Commission report that was thorough in approach and candid in outlining solutions. Virtually none of the major solutions offered by the commission on the revenue side have been adopted, including the idea of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) user fee. When the Legislature was asked to raise the gas tax by 19 cents in 2009, they turned the idea down, and in 2013 they adopted a barely adequate 3-cent increase with an inflation adjuster that is now headed to the ballot as a tax-averse group promotes the inflation adjuster’s repeal.

The reality, therefore, is that we do not currently have the financial resources for a program of strategic transit expansion to alleviate traffic congestion in the short or near term. We should, but we don’t. However, this doesn’t leave us without the ability to act in other meaningful ways. Using the tools and the money that we have available, there are steps that can be taken now to help alleviate chronic traffic congestion.

Two initiatives present themselves as simple and inexpensive ways to relieve current congestion conditions. First, encourage more carpooling from the north by extending the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on Interstate 93 from its current point of origination in Medford to a place several miles north. The current lane works well for what it is, but it is too short in length to make a meaningful difference for users, or act as a meaningful incentive to change driving behaviors. At the same time, I would offer motorists driving I-93 from both the north and the south the opportunity to use the HOV lane during rush hour for a fee. The fee would be significant and 100 percent of the fee would be dedicated to transit improvements on commuter rail lines serving communities along the Interstate corridor. I understand that some people object to the “Lexus Lane” concept as offering only the wealthy a chance to beat the HOV restriction. My answer to that objection is: if we charge a large enough fee and if we dedicate all of the revenue raised to transit, we can use that money to help level the modal playing field, and that helps everyone.

Second, develop and implement aggressive strategies to encourage modal shift. One such strategy would be to introduce a program of smart commuter rail parking in order to encourage modal shift. The current administration under Transportation Secretary Davey has been appropriately aggressive about adopting new technologies and embracing intelligent transportation systems. Davey has built a strong platform for the next administration to build upon. One initiative ought to be connecting real time traffic information to a smart commuter rail parking program. Two considerations create high levels of anxiety for the average commuter: how long will it take to get to her destination, and, if she is thinking about using intercity or commuter rail, whether she can find a parking spot. Technology can cast both concerns aside by providing reliable real-time information regarding auto vs. commuter rail travel times, as well as the ability to reserve parking (perhaps at reduced rates), taking anxiety and uncertainty out of the equation. If, for example, a commuter could know in the morning what the travel times on the local highway system are, and if that same person could use her smartphone to reserve a parking space at the nearby commuter rail station, that combination of information and services could encourage her to be a more regular transit user. This strategy could be effective along both the I-90 (Turnpike) and I-93 corridors.

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The strategies I propose here can be accomplished quickly and at relatively modest cost. Traffic congestion wastes our time, costs us money in wasted fuel and missed opportunities, pollutes the environment, and stifles private sector investment. In the past our solution to congestion was to build more capacity that would soon become congested – a strategy that we cannot repeat. Encouraging modal shift and the use of expanded and enhanced high occupancy vehicle lanes are two cost efficient and practical ways to improve vehicular mobility in and out of Boston in the short term. In the long term, a sustained and substantial investment in transit will inaugurate a new era of transportation equity and enable modal shift on a more meaningful scale – the kind of modal shift that will help keep traffic on our roads moving while offering people a robust menu of mobility choices.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.