Five transportation assignments for Legislature

Now is the time to start planning for a very different future

MASSACHUSETTS IS IN THE MIDDLE of a transportation revolution. Uber and Lyft vehicles are as ubiquitous as Dunkins; connected and autonomous vehicles no longer seem futuristic; and Boeing is testing air taxis for deployment within the next five years. All of these developments are fundamentally changing transportation as we know and consume it.

Transportation’s transformation is occurring faster than ever. The opportunity to achieve truly revolutionary mobility choices for Massachusetts is upon us; but whether or not we take advantage of this will depend on our short-term choices. The recently released recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Transportation has jumpstarted the process by providing a vision for how to move forward. The Commonwealth’s decision makers should build on that work and the momentum the commission has created.

The commission was charged with imagining Massachusetts transportation in 2040 by examining five key areas: (1) climate and resiliency; (2) transportation electrification; (3) autonomous and connected vehicles; (4) transit and mobility services and (5) land use and demographics. To be clear, the commission is not suggesting that the public has to wait until 2040 to see improvements. To the contrary; it outlines a long-range plan and recommends several short-term actions to take in furtherance of that vision.

The commission was comprised of 19 members representing academia, business, urban and transportation planners, experts in transportation technology, energy and the environment, among others representing different perspectives, geographic regions, and age groups.

The commission’s work has advanced the transportation plan in three fundamental ways:

  • For the first time ever, there is a clear, long-term vision of what the Commonwealth wants its transportation system to look like, informed by data and other considerations, such as changing demographics and denser land use.
  • In a true paradigm shift, the commission acknowledged that transportation is about the movement of people, not assets. As obvious as that may sound, this new mindset requires a fundamental change in how we organize and oversee our transportation infrastructure.
  • The commission recognized that the clean, reliable, multi-modal integrated system we envision will take time and resources – neither of which we have in abundance. In recognition of the tough choices required, the commission offers a hierarchy of investment that provides a reasonable and responsible way of making capital investments.

The Commission on the Future of Transportation proposes major changes to the governance structures that manage transportation in Massachusetts, new initiatives to spur development and innovation, and a new framework to prepare for the future. Among the commission’s 18 recommendations are five that should be addressed by policymakers in the current legislative session:

  1. The seamless, multi-modal, reliable transportation system we envision for 2040 is very different than our current one and will require a new governance structure. One that enables, not inhibits, change. That is why the commission recommended a structure that provides the proper amount of oversight, maximum accountability, and transparency, while allowing flexibility, enhanced coordination among the regional transit authorities and other state agencies, and nimbleness to adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape. As lawmakers determine what the successor to the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is in the months ahead, they have a real opportunity to construct such a governance structure.
  2. Maximizing throughput on our roadways and other transportation assets will necessitate repurposing them. For instance, in order to alleviate congestion, prioritizing shared vehicles over single occupancy ones on our roadways must become a primary focus. This could entail dedicating more high occupancy vehicle lanes, promoting active modes and ride sharing, and incenting use of public transit over driving through some pricing mechanisms.
  3. Given the significant challenges that this transportation revolution poses to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and other transportation agencies, and the urgency with which we must confront them, the commission recommends creation of a Transportation Technology Transformation Initiative (T3I). Modeled loosely on the Commonwealth’s successful initiative in the Life Sciences space, this new public-private partnership will be a way to harness the talent and innovation of the private sector to solve some of these emerging challenges, as well as the more intractable ones, while providing much needed expertise to MassDOT and fostering the nascent transportation technology industry.
  4. Demonstrating the multi-purpose approach it used in developing its recommendations, the commission calls for the creation of transportation compact to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. If designed properly, this cap and trade program (or RGGI for transportation, as it is sometimes called) can advance the state’s environmental goals, provide a new revenue source dedicated to investments in statewide public transit while also potentially reducing congestion.
  5. The commission recognized that a statewide telecommunication infrastructure and robust electric grid are critical components of our 21st century mobility infrastructure as technology and electricity become even more integral to transportation in the future. One of the bolder commission recommendations requires that all vehicles sold in the Commonwealth after 2040 be electric. Preparations for the electrification of transportation must begin now in order to meet that goal. While revenue was not the primary focus of the commission, we did not shy away from the topic either.

The commission suggests maintaining and modernizing the system first; then investing in climate resiliency; followed by de-carbonization and electrification efforts; and finally we invest in expansions based on clearly publicly-articulated criteria (i.e. reducing emissions, moving the greatest number of people most efficiently, advancing equity). While these investments are not necessarily intended to be linear, they are meant to make clear how we must prioritize public investments if we want to make the commission’s vision a reality. All future transportation capital investments should be viewed through this lens.

In effect, the Commission did a lot of the legwork for policy makers.

Meet the Author

Eileen McAnneny

President, Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation
A shared commitment by business and legislative leadership and other stakeholders to making measurable progress on the Commonwealth’s transportation agenda in the next 2-3 years with the commission’s report serving as the road map could be revolutionary indeed. 

Eileen McAnneny is the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. MTF’s report in the fall of 2017 called for a new blueprint for transportation that considered the technological advances in the transportation sector and the need to build climate change resiliency and adaptation measures into our transportation capital budgets and was the impetus for the Commission on the Future of Transportation.  She served as the commission’s vice chair.