User fee needed at Suffolk Downs

Now that the general details of the proposed casino/entertainment complex at Suffolk Downs have been revealed, it is time to begin in earnest the development of a comprehensive, effective, and lasting transportation improvement plan that will address existing mobility issues and future needs.  The transportation issues facing massive development at Suffolk Downs are large in scope and will not be simple or inexpensive to solve.  But no development of this scale will succeed without getting these issues right. 

Thus far, there have been public statements about the private sector spending up to $40 million on road and infrastructure improvements, but those are likely more talking points than reflective of any serious plan.  The idea of a “fly-over” on Route 1A is an old and very bad idea – an eyesore, and a band-aid that will not solve the current congestion on Route 1A from the airport to Bell Circle in Revere. And there has been no discussion of implementing a major expansion and improvement of the Blue Line – a transit line that currently serves the site, and that could become a mobility lifeline enabling a safer, greener, more sustainable and more community-friendly approach to getting people to and from the proposed development.

 So let’s have a serious conversation about what is necessary to make this site a success.  Here is a five-point proposal:

  1. Extend the Blue Line to Lynn
  2. Connect the Blue Line to the Red Line
  3. Re-design and reconstruct Route 1A from Logan Airport to Bell Circle
  4. Adopt a short list of strategic parking and transit improvements
  5. Charge a user fee to all vehicles entering the Suffolk Downs complex
The first two points are critical to any serious comprehensive mobility improvement plan.  The Blue Line can be the mode of choice for many people who would like to enjoy the new casino/entertainment complex.  Taking transit will resolve many of the concerns people will have about the drinking and fatigue that may affect some of the patrons of the facility.

In combination with the proposed User Fee, an improved and expanded Blue Line will encourage modal shift, reducing the number of cars attempting to park at Suffolk Downs.  It will also enable the development to pass muster from an environmental permitting and air quality perspective.  The MBTA owns a large and underutilized parking facility in downtown Lynn – a facility with nearly 1,000 spaces that could be filled each day by people taking an extended Blue Line to Suffolk Downs, or to Logan Airport.  The demand is there, and the infrastructure partially built. 

Similarly, the idea of connecting the Blue and Red Lines along Cambridge Street is a long-awaited promise of transportation planning over the past decades.  Making these two improvements will enable the Blue Line to become a robust mobility connection for both Logan Airport and Suffolk Downs.

Re-designing Route 1A is a critical necessity.  The highway today barely functions during an increasingly extended period of time each day.  Careful planning, including some strategic land takings and creative engineering, needs to take place.  Building an eyesore of a fly-over and calling it a day will create more problems than it will solve.

A short list of strategic parking and transit improvements will also be necessary.  Three such improvements are:  (1) a carefully considered parking cap needs to be put into place, ensuring that “parking creep” will not undermine transportation investments, (2)  preferred parking spots at the complex should be outfitted with electric vehicle charging stations, and (3) the current bus network in Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston needs to be expanded with new routes and new equipment in order to improve affordable choices for local residents who will likely be working at the new complex.

Finally, every vehicle entering the complex should be charged a user fee that will initially be dedicated to paying debt issued for these transit and roadway improvements, and over time can be dedicated to a transportation maintenance fund dedicated to asset management for those improvements. Such a user fee surely will be no burden on people who are able to afford the gaming and entertainment offerings of the new development.  The fee can be collected through license plate imagery, or through a form of shadow toll where the private sector will add the user fee to its parking charges, and pay the fee over to the state for the dedicated fund.

East Boston and Revere have historically been victimized by bad transportation planning and decision making.  East Boston, in particular, has suffered the lasting negative consequences of insensitive and poorly planned highway and tunnel building of the mid-20th century. We cannot repeat those mistakes. The persistence of former Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci, and dedicated community activists, pushed the Ted Williams Tunnel from its original alignment through East Boston to a spot within Logan Airport. But sadly that was the exception to the historic disregard of quality of life issues in East Boston and surrounding communities.

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The proposed Suffolk Downs complex can be a huge success and a model for other projects, but it won’t be without a comprehensive and multi-modal transportation plan along the lines I have described.  We can get these daunting transportation issues right. Doing so requires a commitment on the part of the public and private sectors, community activists, and environmental watchdogs like Conservation Law Foundation, to come together and develop a sensible, fair and effective plan that improves mobility sustainably. 

James Aloisi was Secretary of Transportation in 2009.