Driving in the breakdown lane

We need to get serious about infrastructure investment in Massachusetts

US investment in the preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations of American prosperity in the long run.” That was the conclusion of a recent report issued by 89 transportation experts, co-chaired by former US secretaries of transportation Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner.  The need for investment in roads, rail, and air facilities was pegged at $134-$262 billion per year nationally through 2035. “We’ve got to look at this as an investment, not an expense,” concluded Skinner.

His comments echo those of a recent report on global competitiveness from the World Economic Forum, which showed that the US had slipped from second to fourth. The report included a warning that “policy-makers must not lose sight of long-term competitiveness fundamentals amid short-term challenges.”  Switzerland retained the top spot in the study, which measured “12 pillars of competitiveness,” including the state of national infrastructure, environment, health and education.

In Massachusetts, the 2007 Transportation Finance Commission Report estimated that the transportation investment shortfall between what we are now spending and what we must spend  to reach just a “state of good repair” – excluding investments in new projects or equipment – was $20 billion. Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan has a massive road and bridge repair program underway, spending over $1 billion in construction in 2010 and $500 million in state-of-good-repair projects at the MBTA. Can we sustain this? Can we afford not to sustain this?  Could we even consider expanding the program to embrace advanced, integrated, multi-modal transportation system technologies, many of which have been developed here in Boston and Cambridge. Can we ensure that there will be the funding commitments to maintain this level of investment in a 21st century roadway system if we build it?  These are absolutely critical issues that must be addressed if Massachusetts is going to create and sustain a competitive economic climate.

Anyone who has recently traveled in Switzerland or in other economically advanced countries around the world returns stunned at how far behind the US has fallen in the area of public investment in key areas of our infrastructure. In the Boston metropolitan area, the comparison is particularly stark.  But could Massachusetts develop its own set of competitive strategies and targeted investments to lead us to achieving a truly modern, efficient, 21st century transportation infrastructure?  Given the increasingly global nature of economic competition, wouldn’t it make more sense to emulate conditions in Switzerland rather than Mississippi?

We know from our recent economic development initiatives in targeted growth industries such as biotech and life sciences that access to a modern, safe, and reliable transportation system is a key to new business investment and job creation. Transportation is also at the top of the list of those critical elements necessary for a good quality of life for every resident.  It not only impacts the productivity and experience of daily commuters but also affects the perceptions and experience of business travelers and convention visitors or tourists in Massachusetts – increasingly important contributors to our economy. 

With the passage of the 2009 Massachusetts Transportation Reform Act, the stage has been set for a whole new transportation landscape, no longer encumbered by the institutional silos and bloated structures and policies of the past.  The Patrick administration should be given credit for effectively implementing this reform and restructuring during a difficult fiscal period, while simultaneously launching a variety of new initiatives such as “Green DOT” and real time electronic bus and train schedule distribution. All of these initiatives demonstrate that Massachusetts is poised to play a leading role in the upcoming reauthorization of the multi-year Federal transportation funding bill that has been pending in Congress and that is overdue for action.

But if we are going to make the investments in transportation that will bring us to a state of good repair and modernization while also investing in new strategic growth projects, and thereby enhance our state’s economic competitiveness, we must be willing to address the need for new sources of dedicated funding for this purpose.  Here is the meat for a good, open, public debate. The voters in Massachusetts recently rejected a ballot initiative to roll back the sales tax to 3 percent when it was made clear how severe and potentially irresponsible the impact would be.  Could we now engage in an open discussion of the available revenue raising options for transportation without demonizing those supporting such measures?  Would it take a shutdown of the MBTA in order to win public appreciation for its importance to the hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely upon it each day and its essential role in the overall state economy?  

If taxes are off the table, should we pursue opportunities for privatization that have been broadly accepted in other parts of the country and overseas?  If not privatization, what other sources of revenue are available that will not run afoul of the anti-tax fever?  One option may be to implement an expanded vehicle inspection and maintenance program that would employ a user charge based upon a vehicle’s miles traveled (VMT) or an emissions-per-mile charge, over a given period. This is one of many policy options that may be available to develop a funding source for renewed transportation investment. But we need a willingness to engage in an honest and open discussion.

Coupled with the debate on funding should be an equally honest and open discussion of what kinds of investment we should make.  Can we address our housing crisis by offering reliable, high speed access to lower cost areas of the Commonwealth?  What is required to make our transportation system truly world class?  For this, it is instructive to look at the competition.

Traveling by rail from London to Paris via the Eurostar, or travelling throughout Western Europe or in Japan by bullet train, the passenger experience is one of gliding noiselessly, rapidly (so fast that your ears pop!) to your destination, while sampling high quality food and beverage services in a modern, clean and comfortable compartment.  Notably, the distances covered by these fast, dependable and safe rail systems are similar to the distances and populations serviced by our commuter rail and inter-city rail systems on both coasts of the US, as well as in parts of the Midwest.

But in London, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere, people pay for transportation.  In most of Europe, gas is more than double the price in the US, much of that price resulting from taxes dedicated for transportation.  The experience of a high quality, well-integrated rail service is an assumption of daily life, woven into the expectations of the travelling public. One can live within a 100 mile radius of an employment center and travel with ease by train or bus, in a seamless fashion and with confidence in the quality and reliability of service. And one can schedule business meetings in nearby metropolitan areas (think New York or Washington, DC) and be confident of a fast, convenient and reliable rail service, linking center city with center city in relatively short travel times. 

To achieve such infrastructure in the US, the Obama administration’s funding of high speed rail improvements could get us started. But reaching this goal will require extensive coordination and commitment by transportation leaders in many states.  New England is again in a good position, as our leadership has been meeting with other leaders from the New England states and New York for nearly two years – developing good regional connections and a real vision for passenger rail in the region.  The planned expansion of South Station is a product of that cooperation and is an exciting first step. However, additional political and financial support will be required in order to realize the potential for this project or for the 84 minute travel time to New York City touted by Amtrak.

When it comes to the state of our roads and bridges, the story is much the same. Whether travelling by car or by bus on a well maintained highway system, entering and exiting at full speeds, or passing through automatic fare collection toll readers, the experience of highway travel overseas in some developed countries is efficient, safe, and apparently funded sufficiently to maintain a high standard roadway infrastructure system. 

Here in the Commonwealth, we face a backlog of needed repairs to our roadways and bridges.  We have finally gotten started on addressing this, but is the effort sustainable, and where are the new revenues to come from that will support the investment in a 21st century high-technology-based system?   

Ironically, the one aspect of our transportation infrastructure that is truly world class is the one that has been the most derided: the Central Artery and Ted Williams Tunnel.  Despite all the criticism for excessive cost and the tragic tunnel ceiling collapse, this incredible improvement to our highway system and to the core of downtown Boston is truly an engineering wonder and the envy of major cities around the world.  Perhaps the endless wrangling about who is more to blame for the Big Dig could be more constructively debated in the context of: (a) what lessons have we learned on the need for the public to better understand what investments in infrastructure will truly cost to build and maintain? (b) how do we pay for it and what are the real costs of not making these investments? and (c) how can we make sure that we have qualified, transparent, and accountable project management in place to protect the public interest when undertaking these massive investments ? 

Meet the Author

A. Vernon Woodworth

Architect and code consultant, AKF Group
These are some of the questions that we should now consider in a debate on the real issues and challenges that we face to make us more competitive – more like a Switzerland of the United States.

Douglas McGarrah is a partner at the Boston law firm Foley Hoag LLP, where he has served as project counsel for developers and public entities on major and complicated project reviews, especially those with significant transportation issues.