Everybody talks about transportation
But it likely won’t have an impact at the voting booth
Mark Twain once famously observed, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
The irony is, of course, there’s nothing much you can do about it but grumble. That is perhaps where we are at with transportation, especially public transit, here in Massachusetts. The MBTA is getting a lot of attention in the gubernatorial race, with Democrat Jay Gonzalez constantly trying to hang the decaying system around Gov. Charlie Baker’s neck. But for all the talk, it doesn’t look like it’s hurt Baker’s standing among voters.
Republican Jennifer Nassour and Democrat Jesse Mermell explored the phenomenon on their “Disagreeing Agreeably” program on The Codcast. They were joined by Pioneer Institute’s Charlie Chieppo and Marc Ebuña, from TransitMatters, who had different, albeit not divergent, takes on the state of transportation and later, Rich Parr of MassINC Polling Group joined the conversation to talk about where transportation ranks in importance to voters.
Mermell, perhaps voicing the recurring theme from most, said she enjoys taking public transportation “when it works.” She said the impact of the system on the regional economy should dictate that Baker hop on for a ride, which he so far has declined to do.
Nassour, who lives in Boston, said she walks most places because “I hate driving.” She said she will occasionally take the T but when push comes to shove, she turns to that increasingly ubiquitous challenge to public transportation and the taxi industry.
Mermell and Nassour both pointed out the need for billions in investments to upgrade the MBTA and wondered how much of an effect it will have on next week’s election. Both Chieppo and Ebuña said it will be very little.
“Clearly it is among the top issues people are concerned about but I’m just not sure how many votes it’s going to sway,” Chieppo said. “I think people think it will be bad no matter who is in charge.”
Chieppo said state officials are facing “an existential crisis in transit” that they have to pay attention to or pay the consequences. “There is a huge disconnect between what needs to happen and the politics,” he said. “We’re getting to point where people’s level of rage over traffic conditions has got be heard by their elected officials.”
Ebuña said the problems will have “some small effect but not really enough to sway the election.” He gave Baker credit for tackling some of the problems, including creating the Fiscal and Management Control Board, moving ahead with the Green Line extension and South Coast Rail, and ordering new Red Line cars. He said those fixes aren’t going to yield immediate benefits but will pay dividends down the line.
“The governor is putting some effort into the ‘boring work,’” he said.
Ebuña said the increase in “micromobility,” such as electric and manual scooters and docked and dockless bicycles, has the “appearance of effectiveness” but is instead distracting from the transit needs.
Parr said the numbers bear out the divide between public outrage and public action. He points out that Baker gets generally high marks for effectiveness but drilling below the surface on specific issues, he gets a low to failing grade from voters for his handling of transportation. But he also continues to poll as one of the most popular governors in the country and holds a commanding 35 to 39 point lead over Gonzalez, depending on the poll.
Nassour said some of the problems rest with the late Boston mayor Thomas Menino, who saw the growing population and building boom in Boston but failed to forge public-private partnerships to address the problems before they occurred.Chieppo, though, said crises are usually what gets people’s attention and trigger action.
“When you find a politician who is willing to fix signals and tracks before there is a crisis, let me know because I will absolutely vote for that person,” he said.