For complex traffic problem, Baker offers smorgasbord

Congestion plan sees potential quick fixes at intersections

LACKING A “SILVER BULLET” to deal with traffic congestion, Gov. Charlie Baker presented a scattershot plan Thursday to tinker with intersections, quickly clear road wrecks, and consider building special new lanes or raising ride-hailing fees to help commuters robbed of their time and patience on the way to work.

Data compiled by the Baker administration show that traffic has indeed grown worse over the last five years, and in metro Boston it has gotten to the point where a little screw-up can plunge the road network into catastrophe.

“The Commonwealth has reached a tipping point with respect to congestion.  The roadway network is now so full that relatively small insults – a crash, a work zone that doesn’t get picked up early enough in the morning, bad weather, an event that draws extra people to downtown Boston – all of these can create cascading congestion,” said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, who added that average delays are marginally worse than a few years ago but the bad traffic days are considerably worse now.

With great variability in commuting times and little assurance for what the road will have in store for them on any particular day, many drivers plan for the worst. Traveling the 18 miles from Burlington to Kendall Square can take under half an hour, and it averages 40 minutes, but once every 10 days the ride in takes 56 minutes and it stretches well over an hour not infrequently, according to data compiled by the administration.

To confront this scenario, the Baker administration is marshaling some cheap fixes along the lines of a $1.4 million reconfiguration of a rotary in Middleborough that smoothed traffic moving through a dangerous bottleneck at a fraction of the $80 million it would have cost to do a full rebuild, Pollack said.

“We have signaling issues on state roads and local roads that absolutely positively contribute to congestion. We need to deal with those,” Baker told reporters. “We have choke points associated with rotaries and other intersections that were built and designed literally in some cases hundreds, certainly decades, of years ago. We need to do something about that.”

The generally tax-averse Baker administration also expressed some willingness to consider raising fees on Uber and Lyft – an idea championed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh – in addition to other regulations on the ride-hailing companies.

The scale of the problem and an analysis of some proposed fixes was outlined in a 157-page congestion study, commissioned one year ago, and finally publicized on Thursday, a couple months after it was due. It arrives against a backdrop of emissions-driven climate change creating challenges around the globe and a local transit system whose busiest subway line will operate at a deficiency until October.

A Better City, a business-backed group, commended the Baker administration for developing the report, but said the solutions should lean more heavily on public transit.

“The MBTA and commuter rail system must convert to a 21st century system that will lead us to substantive congestion relief,” A Better City CEO Rick Dimino said.

Two earlier legislative proposals from Baker – to extract more data from ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft – and to reward employers whose employees work from home with a telecommuting tax credit were also mentioned as steps to reduce gridlock.

The study said the idea of increasing the fee on Uber and Lyft rides – which was not part of the governor’s bill – is worthy of further consideration, but it spent a whole chapter knocking down other types of congestion pricing.

Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, praised many of the recommendations in the report but reacted negatively to the dismissal of congestion pricing approaches he has championed.  “When it comes to road pricing, this report falls short,” he said. “The Governor must more aggressively confront congestion by piloting and testing smarter tolling approaches that have worked in other regions and can work here.”

The Baker administration is still cool to many of the congestion pricing ideas and the notion of lowering MBTA fares to make transit more attractive, favoring instead a more active role for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to keep state highways clear.

“We have to do a lot of things really well every day that we currently do a little of,” Pollack said. “There’s no tolerance left. There’s no room for error left in the system. It’s just so busy that when things go wrong, they go wrong badly.”

Harkening back to the more hands-on tactics to manage traffic during construction of the Big Dig, Pollack said the state should once again position tow trucks along highways to more rapidly clear crashes or breakdowns, and take other measures to actively manage state roads.

“Once I build a road, other than if someone needs me to plow it or fill a pothole, I don’t really assign any people to the MassPike or Route 128 or 495. No one at MassDOT operates the roads the way the T operates the transit system,” Pollack said. “We have to operate the roads, not just when we happen to be building on them and we’re the cause of the congestion, but all the time.”

Another technique that the Baker administration wants to spend more time considering is the idea of adding a travel lane along some highways that could be tolled to reduce the amount of traffic passing through it, and opening that lane to buses and van pools.

Other initiatives the Baker administration is already undertaking, including lobbying for zoning law changes to support more housing production, supporting job growth in Gateway cities, and investing in improvements to the MBTA would also reduce the jams on the thoroughfares from home to job.

“Congestion is a complicated problem with a complicated and interconnected set of causes,” Pollack said. “There is no silver bullet. There is no one thing the Commonwealth can do that will make congestion better here, but there are a lot of things that we have to do if we take congestion seriously.”

The MBTA has identified 14 miles of potential bus-only travel lanes that would improve service, and the governor’s $18 billion transportation bond bill would include $50 million for the state to pick up the cost of building bus lanes on city streets and installing signal priority to favor buses at municipally-owned traffic lights, Pollack said.

The Baker administration also intends to formulate a plan to better use carpool lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes. The report claims no such effort has been taken since the 1990s. In fact, the Baker administration earlier this year temporarily scrapped the HOV lane on Interstate 93 north of Boston to mitigate traffic caused by construction work on the Tobin Bridge.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

The report says the state needs to look at developing a network of HOV lanes connected to commuter parking, and also consider using the breakdown lane, or shoulder, as a travel lane for buses.

Pollack on Thursday also announced a $4.5 million grant program for employers or municipalities to find new routes to connect the workforce to jobs.