Three out-of-the-box transportation proposals

Private partner on S. Coast Rail, ramp for casino

December is traditionally the time when people reflect on priorities for the approaching New Year. In that spirit, I offer up three ideas that may provoke some thought and, hopefully, action in 2015.

Idea 1: Make South Coast Rail Happen With a Public Private Partnership

Connecting Boston and New Bedford by passenger rail has its appeal, but a likely “all-in” budget in excess of $2 billion seems unachievable and unrealistic. Regional equity requires that regions outside the Greater Boston area receive their fair share of public attention and investment, but sometimes big ideas like South Coast Rail need to give way to fiscal and practical realities. And the reality in this instance is that finding the public funds necessary to complete this project on any reasonable schedule is an unlikely prospect in the short or mid-term. Look at the Green Line expansion (a $2.3 billion dollar project – using 43 percent federal funding – originally scheduled to be completed and operational this month; now scheduled for revenue operations in June 2021) if you need further proof of how steep the road to South Cost Rail will be in its current iteration. I’ve been asked whether there are solutions to this, and the answer is “yes.”

Massachusetts should aggressively take advantage of a smart public/private partnership (P3)to make South Coast Rail a reality. Often the best ideas for solving seemingly insurmountable public infrastructure challenges are percolating in the minds of creative people in the private sector. These ideas need a way to come to the fore and flourish, through a process that is transparent and designed to encourage and incentivize creative thinking. A robust and meaningful request for information process, perhaps combined with a call for unsolicited proposals, would give the private sector a chance to demonstrate the economic and operational feasibility of a South Coast Rail P3. Public private partnerships are no longer the lopsided corporate deals that were prevalent a decade or more ago and that have proven to be neither popular nor durable. Rather, there are many successful models to look at, including the highly regarded P3 used to build and operate the Miami Port Tunnel, where construction risk is taken by the private sector along with responsibility to meet clear performance metrics through the life of the engagement.

Give the private sector incentives to build, operate, finance, and maintain South Coast Rail, perhaps offering the successful proposer the right of first refusal on components of the rest of the commuter rail system. There would need to be very clear performance metrics, including requiring a fare structure consistent with encouraging modal shift to rail. A number of significant legal and structural issues would have to be unlocked, not least labor issues arising from the federal Railway Labor Act, but several lawyers (myself included) have looked at these issues over the years and none of them present insurmountable obstacles to engaging this idea in a serious way.

By proposing a South Coast Rail P3, I do not mean to suggest that there ought to be a retrenchment of public investment in New Bedford and Fall River. To the contrary, a P3-driven approach to making South Coast Rail happen should open opportunities for public and private sector investment directed toward those cities. The Commonwealth’s so-called Gateway Cities ought to be economic centers in their own right, and their economic strength ought not to be tied primarily to being tethered to Boston. New Bedford, in particular, is poised to leverage its historic working waterfront to grow jobs and attract investment. In 2009 I directed federal stimulus funding toward repairing rail bridges in New Bedford, and that ongoing process continues to have state support. This initiative is important because rail access to New Bedford’s waterfront is an essential component of a vibrant maritime-oriented district. New Bedford’s proximity to Providence, its location as a gateway to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, its status as one of the state’s most energy-smart and green cities, its critical role in the success of offshore wind power, and its ability to grow its port as a strategic alternative for cargo shipments make it a prime candidate for public and private sector investment that can produce significant returns. A viable P3 for South Coast Rail might actually encourage and accelerate such investment in the city’s waterfront and related infrastructure.

Idea 2: An Everett Casino Mobility Plan

The November election called the question on casino gaming in Massachusetts. Regardless of one’s personal views on gaming, it seems right and necessary to offer positive ideas on how to reduce any negative impacts that may arise. The impacts of a Greater Boston casino on transportation mobility are so large that they require creative solutions. At risk is the core of the downtown Interstate system, the future of Sullivan Square and Assembly Square, and the success of the casino itself.

This is no occasion for conventional thinking. The stakes are high, and the potential upsides and downsides critical to the regional economy. The traffic that will be generated by the proposed Everett casino threatens to have profoundly negative impacts on both local streets and the regional interstate highway system. Pursuing an effective multi-modal strategy to provide access to the site is essential to mitigating traffic congestion, but the reality is that the high rollers Wynn seeks to attract to his casino will likely get there by car, either a personal vehicle or a hired one. By Wynn’s own estimates, a little over 70 percent of those visiting the site will be arriving in a vehicle. The potential impacts on local and regional mobility are bad news for everyone, including Mr. Wynn, who presumably is interested in making certain that his substantial investment actually functions well from a mobility and public realm perspective. The driving impulses of capitalism can provide fertile ground for the creativity needed to push aside the inertia of the status quo. This is therefore a circumstance where both the public and private sectors have interests that are aligned to support a mobility network that responds to their needs while also enabling the urban and regional roadway systems to function at desirable levels.

History teaches us that certain markers need to be set – bright lines that cannot be crossed. One is the integrity of Sullivan Square and the fulfillment of the planning process that has occupied local residents and city officials for the last several years. This is about something larger than Sullivan Square. It’s time to say clearly: Boston’s neighborhoods, whether East Boston, Charlestown, or the Seaport District, cannot be treated simply or primarily as places that people drive through to get to somewhere else. That is a proven recipe for urban decline.

The other line that cannot be crossed is simply put: no further degradation of traffic conditions on the downtown Interstate core. If we have learned any lessons from our history, one ought to be that mobility gridlock is a precursor to urban and economic decline. We cannot allow the Metropolitan Highway System to become the victim of another generation of chronic congestion and gridlock.

The opportunity for bold action presents itself as a realistic outcome given the innovation-driven leadership in Mayor Walsh’s City Hall, the proven willingness of Somerville’s mayor to think and act boldly, and the inclination of Gov.-elect Baker to seek out creative, private-sector driven solutions. The Wynn team has also proven to be smart and agile, and I suspect they would be willing to support resourceful thinking especially if doing so will strengthen their long term interests. Given these circumstances, there ought to be few barriers to developing consensus around creative solutions. Here are some specific ideas to get the discussion started.

First, divert and contain casino traffic. The current ramps from I-93 into Sullivan Square cannot handle the additional traffic anticipated as a result of a casino – the ramp heading north barely functions well today. Moreover, dumping casino traffic into Sullivan Square calls the question forever on whether Charlestown can ever reclaim it as an integral part of its community. What could be a vital transit node and link between Boston, Somerville, and the casino will become a black hole of traffic and turn-off to investment.

I propose diverting traffic away from Sullivan Square by building a new privately funded ramp system that funnels all casino traffic coming from I-93 north and south directly into a central garage facility on the Boston/Somerville side of the river, where a smart shuttle system, or people mover/monorail, will transport visitors directly to the casino. The garage could be built to accommodate retail and entertainment uses that would draw visitors and perhaps be synergistic with both Assembly Square and the casino. Alternatively, such a ramp system could funnel all traffic across the Mystic River and directly onto the casino site. In either case, such a ramp system would need to be privately funded and maintained because it is highly unlikely, for a number of reasons, that the Federal Highway Administration would support it. This new dedicated ramp system and parking facility could be financially supported by an established, predictable revenue stream: the imposition of parking fees, a “shadow toll,” or availability payments from a private sector investment fund (or a combination of those approaches) that would support paying off the costs of construction and would later be dedicated to maintenance.

Diversion and containment are strategies that require out-of-the-box thinking, but, as I have said, tackling these issues using conventional thinking will not produce meaningful results. What’s required to make this strategy work is a joint public and private sector commitment to redesign the local roadway network and public realm, discouraging access to the casino site through local streets, and encouraging transit use by offering expanded transit routes and schedules, pedestrian-friendly pathways, street lighting and traffic signalization, and first class “last-mile” connections between the nearby Orange Line stations and the site.

Finally, make casino parking state-of-the-art smart. This means parking facilities that are sensor-enabled to provide real-time information on available spaces, enabling the reservation of spaces for a fee, taking all of the uncertainty and anxiety out of the chronic dilemma of wondering whether there will be a place for you to park. Pricing could be dynamic and variable, designed to draw casino visitors during off-peak times. An interactive smartphone app could enable remote parking space reservation and payment, while also providing information about alternative modes and transit schedules, informing a person that they might have an easier travel experience taking the T or delaying their trip by an hour. A smart parking system tied to a dedicated parking facility can become important tools for managing traffic in and out of the casino parking facilities and encouraging modal shift.

Idea 3: A Bus Rapid Transit Pilot

My advocacy for bus rapid transit (BRT) is no secret. BRT can become the cornerstone of a new modally equitable approach to urban transit that both the Baker and Walsh administrations can collaborate on, demonstrating the efficacy of doing more with less. BRT is a proven and cost-effective way to enhance transit mobility by providing higher quality service, improving underperforming bus routes, and servicing underserved neighborhoods and districts.

I have previously called for a Connected Boston Corridor – a BRT corridor that would link the city from Mattapan Square through Dudley Square, to South Station and finally Logan Airport. It is likely that BRT will only become a reality if and when true “gold standard” BRT is available for people to see, use, and experience. A strong candidate for a pilot BRT corridor is one where BRT will be welcomed by local residents and stakeholders and where it can be deployed fairly easily. That corridor may well be the route linking South Station to the Convention Center, and then to Logan Airport. BRT along this route will relieve the Silver Line 1 service, which is nearly at capacity, and provide direct, modern, and efficient links between our busiest transit station, our major convention and exhibition facility, and our international airport. This approach will serve the interests of everyone who wants access to those key centers of activity, and also to those who are investing in homes, apartments and businesses throughout the Seaport District.

Given the existing dimensions of Summer Street and the potential to use the state police ramp to access the Ted Williams Tunnel to Logan, this project could be designed, built, and ready for operation at relatively modest cost within 12-18 months. It can be a launching pad for a groundbreaking approach to improving urban mobility in a transformative way, connecting key origin and destination nodes throughout the city, and improving the public realm through well-designed BRT.

This BRT would need to be built properly – that is, with all of the attributes of “true BRT,” including dedicated lanes preferably in the median, level boarding (similar to subway-style boarding), off-vehicle payment, and well-designed stations (not conventional bus stops) that make the experience one that inspires a sense that an rider is taking a first-rate mode of transit. BRT has been deployed this way in such places as Bogota and Mexico City – there is no reason why we cannot do it in Boston.

BRT can even have a dedicated revenue stream available to support it if the state enacts legislation to create Transit Improvement Districts (TIDs). A TID would allow cities and towns to assess a carbon-impact fee on vehicles using non-residential parking facilities, providing a stable and reliable source of revenue to leverage bond funding to pay for transit, bike and ped improvements. TIDs offer a way to empower municipalities, at their local option, to improve the environment and generate net new revenue for chronically underfunded elements of our transportation system.

Meet the Author

These ideas are meant to shake up our conventional way of thinking about problems. And it’s high time we did so. Think about it: we are more than half way toward the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century. We are awash in innovations that are changing our expectations about the availability and cost of nearly everything, including mobility services. If ever there was a time to explore creative approaches to service delivery and funding, this is it. I present these three ideas as practical, affordable and constructive ways to make big things happen – ways to tap into the creative spirit of our times and provoke thought, discussion and (hopefully) action in 2015.

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