Baker’s stump speech on transportation

Playing catchup, weed whacking, and omissions

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER outlined his top personal and legislative priorities for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, focusing on education, health care, transportation, skills training, climate change, and housing.

On health care and housing, Baker asked business leaders to pressure the Legislature to pass his proposals. On skills training, he outlined an initiative to run three shifts a day for students and adults at vocational schools. On education and climate change, he discussed some of the major challenges ahead.

His extensive comments on transportation weren’t news per se, but they captured how he approaches the issue. He sees congestion as an outgrowth of the state’s strong economy and its failure to invest in transportation infrastructure in the past. He acknowledges his administration is now playing catchup, but he feels it’s headed in the right direction and going about as fast as it can.

Baker’s remarks at the Marriott Copley Place also illustrated his tendency to wade into the weeds, with lengthy discourses on how to speed up repairs and how to boost capacity on the subway system by upgrading tracks and signals.

It’s also interesting to see what Baker didn’t mention. With the Legislature (and even the Greater Boston Chamber) seeking to boost spending on transportation, Baker never mentioned money as a problem. He didn’t mention his own budget’s call for additional T operating funds, paid for with much higher fees on Uber and Lyft rides.

He also didn’t mention the dramatic makeover of the commuter rail system approved as a series of resolutions in November by the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, which the governor appointed. That makeover calls for electric trains running every 15 to 20 minutes on the busiest lines, and targets three lines to be tackled first. T General Manager Steve Poftak missed some initial deadlines last week for moving that makeover forward, saying he and the agency have been preoccupied with dealing with safety issues.

Here is a very lightly edited version of the governor’s remarks on transportation:

When I ran for governor in 2014, I do not believe transportation came up once, not once during the entire campaign. Since that time, we’ve added hundreds of thousands of jobs to our economy, probably 100 million Uber and Lyft rides on an annual basis, an uncountable but staggering number of delivery services through the growth of online retail over this same period of time, and we’ve also created what I would describe as a booming economy with a whole series of very successful clusters both intellectually and geographically around Massachusetts. Mash all that together and you create significant issues around how people get from where they are to where they need to go.

Then you compound that with a public transportation infrastructure that has been underinvested in for decades, where the lead time associated with making investments is not short. And we play catchup. And that’s what we’ve been doing and what we will continue to do, but I do believe, directionally, we are chasing the right things.

When we took office, the MBTA was spending about $300 million a year on its infrastructure. It had never spent anything like a billion dollars. The first time the T ever spent a billion dollars on modernizing its infrastructure was last year. The second time the MBTA will spend a billion dollars on modernizing its infrastructure is this year. The third time the MBTA is going to spend more than a billion dollars is going to be next year. The numbers we’re talking about are significantly above that over the next several years, because we’re talking about spending $8 billion over five years on modernizing and upgrading and expanding the MBTA infrastructure. That’s a big investment over a short period of time at an organization that has never come close to spending that kind of money before. It’s challenging.

And add to that the fact that what you’re investing in most of the time is a system that people use 18 hours a day seven days a week every day all year. It creates a real challenge around just trying to fit it in and do it in a way that creates the least amount of disruption. But we did something last year that the T had never done before, which is we actually shut down service on the weekends to speed up the pace at which a lot of those modernization initiatives could be pursued. And we probably chopped about two years off the length of time it would have taken to do those projects.

I got a pretty good look at this when I actually went out and spent some time on the tracks talking to people about it, just getting a look myself. Picture it this way. If you’re going to do this work at night, which is what we’d been doing for the previous year and a half or so, trains stop running around 9 or 10 at night. It takes a while to get all the equipment on to the tracks that you need to get on to the tracks to do the work. Work, work, work, work. But you realize the trains are going to start running again at about 5 or 6 and you need a couple hours to pick up what you brought on to the tracks, make sure all the stuff you did is going to work, and then you get off and the system starts running again.

So you literally end up with three-hour bites where you get a lot of work done at night. So we finally just went for it and said on a targeted basis we’re going to shut it down at 9 on a Friday and open it up again at 5 or 6 o’clock on Monday morning. It creates a huge opportunity and momentum to do a ton of work basically over three days, and that’s where you save your two years.

So there’s going to be a whole plan in place to do this again in calendar year 2020. Combine that with the buildout of the Green Line extension, which I know for anybody who’s in Somerville is, let’s call it complicated, but it’s something people have been looking for for years. With the extension of, finally, commuter rail transportation to the South Coast of Massachusetts, an area that was promised it almost 30 years ago and for one reason or another nobody ever did it.

When you think about some of the work associated with the actual arrival of new cars on the Orange and Red Line and the development of a new fleet for the Green Line, you’re talking about adding 100,000 seats to the public transportation system over the course of the next several years. Now part of the way you get the seats is you invest in the tracks and the signals. Now where do seats come from with tracks and signals? Our signals are, for the most part – these are like traffic signals on the rapid transit system – they’re somewhere between 30 and 50 years old, which means they’re not remotely digital. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Some of them were installed in the early 1900s and they still operate, although they do get cranky in the winter. They determine the distance between trains. You can’t get any closer than 5 ½ to 7 minutes between trains using this very old signal technology. But with new signal technology you can get 2 ½ to 3 minutes apart, which means you can move twice as much capacity through the system than you can currently. That will have a big impact on the system’s ability to carry more people.

The other thing we’ve done is we’ve ordered a ton of bi-level coaches for the busiest lines on the commuter rail.

It takes a little while to get here, but the bottom line is you go out the next two or three years and the transit system will be in far better shape than it is today. But it will be disruptive and it will require a certain amount of patience. I don’t have any patience for this. I would like it all to be here by tomorrow. But I also learned to understand when you’re working on an operating system and it’s a little more complicated.

Some of the other things we’ll be doing is investing in what I would describe as fixes to some of the big choke points that exist on our roads and bridges around the system. We’re going to continue to advocate for an $18 billion transportation bond bill, which is currently pending before the Legislature. That bond bill has about $11 billion in it for road, bridge, rotary, and choke-point work and another $7 billion for public transportation services. I would urge all of you if you care about transportation to make sure you communicate how important that piece of legislation is to your legislators. One of the things that typically happens with a lot of complicated bond bills is they don’t get passed until the very end of the session. Sometimes they get passed 15 minutes after the end of the session, which is really interesting. It would be really great if that could get passed sooner so we could actually start using the rules and the resources in the bond bill for this construction season this spring.

The other thing that’s pending is a fairly significant piece of legislation that will give us a ton of data on transportation network companies, where and when they pickup and drop off people. The reason this matters so much is that in the absence of information about that it’s very hard for us to do things – curb cuts, pickup and drop off locations, getting them off the double and triple parked stuff – which clogs the roads, especially in the morning and evening so people can still have three lanes on a three lane road instead of one lane.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The other thing you’ll see is a lot more bus lanes. Rapid bus service in every place we’ve tried it has had a very profound and positive impact on traffic.

And the final thing I’ll mention is we’re doing a big study on managed lanes, which have proven to be very successful in other states and municipalities in moving traffic, particularly at rush hour.