Brownsberger: Take two on reducing congestion

Rush-hour focus with commuter rail is low-hanging fruit

MASSACHUSETTS IS CURRENTLY contemplating a program of investments in regional rail expansion that may cost tens of billions of dollars over several decades. Within that program we need to prioritize the highest value investments.

All agree that the top priority is to make the existing system reliable. We have a moral obligation to those who already use rail to provide reliable service and service expansions can only be built on a foundation of reliable operations.

But after reliability, the next priority has to be supporting mode-shift. By mode-shift, I mean getting people out of cars into commuter trains, capturing trips that people are already making. We already have commuter rail routes that run parallel to huge flows of traffic, we need to be focused on how to shift that traffic off the roads onto rail.

Supporting transit-oriented development (TOD) has to be a secondary priority. By building new routes or increasing frequency, we may encourage job and/or housing growth in new areas.  It is valid and urgent to focus on TOD from an urban planning standpoint and sometimes appropriate to support TOD with additional transit investments. But transit investments should target mode-shift first because development patterns change slowly and are hard to predict, while mode-shift opportunities are somewhat more immediate and certain.

While I start from the viewpoint that building a regional rail system is the right goal for our investment program, over a series of steps, summarized in a recent piece, I have come to the conclusion that in planning investments toward that goal, we should start by focusing on investments that will reduce congestion at rush hour (which now spans several hours in the morning and afternoon):

The MBTA should be asking broadly how to increase rush-hour ridership with recognition that the solution may not require transit investment per se, but may involve more parking at commuter rail stops or other last-mile solutions. The MBTA should be looking at each of its commuter rail lines and determining the ridership constraints at rush hour.

I believe that congestion at rush hour is the right focus for three reasons.  First, it is the low-hanging fruit for mode shift.  Although communications technology is allowing more stay at home and off-hours work arrangements, most commuters still get up in the morning and go to work more or less at rush hour.  Fifty-five percent of the roads in greater Boston are congested at 8 a.m., but only 18 percent are congested at 11 a.m. Commuter rail could serve many of the drivers who are on the road at the most congested hours.

Second, if we are able to achieve substantial mode-shift along one or two major commuting corridors, by reducing congestion on those corridors we will benefit all commuters, including those whose needs force them to drive. That will build broader support for continued expansion of rail.

Third, from a climate change perspective, we want to move as many people out of cars as possible as quickly as possible. A focus on converting existing rush hour trips offers the most rapid public transit approach to that goal (although we also have to focus separately on electrifying the private vehicle fleet).

Targeting congestion at rush hour does not mean only adding service at rush hour. A recent comment on my position seemed to misconstrue my argument on this point.) On the contrary, for many drivers, the absence of more frequent rail service at off-peak hours is one of the reasons that they choose to drive.

The argument is that we should be looking at each line and asking what it would take to increase ridership and reduce road congestion. The answers are likely to be different on different lines.  The conversation about the rail investment program has so far occurred at a visionary level without asking or answering the specific questions that would lead to prioritization of the highest value investment opportunities within the larger vision.

Meet the Author

William Brownsberger

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
The maximal regional rail vision modeled by MassDOT would require the doubling of MBTA parking. I’m all for reducing cars in the urban core areas that I represent, but that means giving the further-flung suburban commuters places to leave their cars when they get on the train. A close look at the performance of some commuter lines may reveal that more parking is actually the most cost-effective way to improve ridership.

The public is asking us to reduce congestion. Commuter rail can be part of the solution. In the context of a larger long-term regional rail investment program, let’s declare regional congestion reduction the early priority and ask concretely how to achieve it.

William Brownsberger is a state senator from Belmont.