Commission report focuses on congestion, climate change

Electric vehicles, carbon fees, tolling among recommendations

A COMMISSION APPOINTED by Gov. Charlie Baker made 18 recommendations on Friday to address the state’s transportation future, including a goal that nearly all vehicles available for sale be electric by 2040, an initiative to reduce vehicle emissions by assessing a fee on the carbon content of fuels, and “the consideration of congestion pricing.”

Headed by Baker’s former chief of staff Steven Kadish, the Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth also pushed for a statewide electric charging network; roadways designed for person-throughput instead of vehicle through-put, an apparent reference to dedicated bus lanes; and a telecommunications infrastructure capable of supporting telecommuting and autonomous vehicles. The commission said municipalities should encourage dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented development, particularly in Gateway Cities that have commuter rail stations.

The two-volume, nearly 250-page report took 10 months to produce and examined five major topic areas (demographics and land use, transit and mobility, autonomous and connected vehicles, climate change, and transportation electrification) using four different scenarios for the future that assumed different levels of technology adoption and concentrations of jobs and housing.

The key challenges identified by the report mostly revolved around congestion and climate change.  At a State House press conference, Kadish called congestion “one of the greatest impediments to our economy and a hindrance to the quality of life.”

The report said there is a desperate need to move more people in fewer vehicles, decarbonize the transportation sector, and transform a mobility system with haves and have-nots into one that serves everyone more equitably. The report warned that disruptive change is inevitable and land-use and development decisions will heavily impact transportation decisions.

“Taken together, these phenomena represent a level of uncertainty about the future of mobility that has not been seen since the widespread adoption of the private automobile,” the commission said in a cover letter to the report.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack noted that investment in public transit was a baseline recommendation of the commission because transit has the capacity to move the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time.

She said addressing Massachusetts traffic congestion is complicated by the fact that the state’s population is aging rapidly and growing. She said the state is forecast to add 600,000 residents by 2040, the equivalent of adding another Boston.

The commission was not supposed to bring financial considerations into its deliberations, but it nevertheless called for policymakers “to commit to providing sufficient resources for the proper maintenance, operation, and upgrades to the state’s transportation network.” The report did not identify a dollar number, but said the task “begins with a commitment to eliminate the longstanding backlog of today’s identified priority deferred MBTA and MassDOT maintenance projects to achieve safe, efficient services and asset conditions by 2030. Only then will the Commonwealth be able to fully turn its attention to effectuating the commission’s vision for 2040.”

The governor didn’t make any revenue commitments, but he said the transportation system of 2040 should be more modern and reliable, cleaner, and more dispersed. He said a more dispersed system would, in a coordinated fashion, allow riders to use more than one mode of transportation to reach their destination – connecting, for example, to the transit system using a ride-hailing app or an autonomous vehicle.

Baker said he was intrigued by the report’s focus on turning roadways into people-movers rather than vehicle-movers. He noted that Watertown and Cambridge are experimenting with a dedicated bus lane on a stretch of road where buses carried more than half of the travelers but represented only a small portion of the vehicle traffic. By creating a dedicated bus lane, the governor said, the pilot project sped up travel for the greatest number of people.

The governor has been reluctant to embrace congestion pricing in the past, but he said he would be amenable to such a fee if affected drivers had other options for reaching their destinations and if the pricing burden for those without options wasn’t too high. He noted London charges a $15 congestion fee to anyone one entering the city during a large chunk of the day.

“That’s not exactly what people have talked about around here,” he said.

Kadish said the commission’s call for the sale of only electric vehicles by 2040 was only a goal since it is unclear whether the state could make it a mandate.

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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 report is a transportation wonk’s dream come true. The governor seemed hooked. As people talked during the press conference, Baker flipped open the commission’s report and appeared to be studying some charts.

“All of us thematically and conceptually think a lot of what’s in here is going to be critical to the Commonwealth’s success going forward,” he said.