Pollack: Faster pace needed on climate change

‘We don’t have a lot of time and it takes us a long time to change’

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK said on Tuesday that the mindset of the state bureaucracy needs to change and change fast if Massachusetts is going to have any chance of responding in a meaningful way to climate change.

“We don’t have a lot of time and it takes us a long time to change,” she said. “We’re not moving fast enough.”

Speaking at a Boston Mobility Summit sponsored by the Barr Foundation, Pollack prefaced her remarks by saying she wanted to be “deliberately provocative.” She indicated the state’s transportation agencies are not focused on the goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 even though the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gases. Based on vehicle miles traveled, automobiles overwhelmingly dwarf all other transportation options, including public transit, bicycling, and walking.

To begin a shift away from cars, Pollack said the state’s transportation agencies need to view their job not as getting people from point A to point B but getting them what they need. She said riding public transit often takes longer than driving a vehicle, but public transit can be attractive because it gives the user productive time for reading and other pursuits.

Pollack said the state’s transportation agencies tend to focus on operations and building and fixing stuff, but cited a number of statistics indicating they don’t do either that well.

For example, she said, the MBTA operates 164 bus routes, of which 131, or 80 percent, are clearly failing the agency’s reliability standards, meaning they are on time less than 73 percent of the time.

She said MBTA capital spending has improved dramatically, but is still way behind where it needs to be. Five years ago, the T was spending $400 million a year on capital projects. This year the agency will spend between $600 million and $700 million. She said the T needs to be spending between $1 billion and $1.2 billion a year.

Pollack also said the agency is struggling to prepare for the future. “We can’t plan for yesterday, which is what we usually do,” Pollack said.

The transportation secretary said the T knows it needs 50 new commuter rail locomotives to improve service reliability, but the agency is just starting a planning process to determine what kind of commuter rail system it wants in the future. That planning process will dictate what kind of locomotive is needed. Until that planning process is completed, Pollack said, the agency will try to make do by spending about $50 million to keep old locomotives running. The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a $27 million contract on Monday for the overhaul of 10 locomotives that are already 30 years old.

Karl Iagnemma, another speaker at the summit, talked about the role autonomous vehicles may play in the future. Iagnemma is the CEO of nuTonomy, a Cambridge-based developer of autonomous vehicles, and the principal research scientist at MIT.

He said he believes autonomous vehicles have tremendous potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. He cited one estimate for Singapore that indicated 300,000 taxi-like autonomous vehicles could take 850,000 vehicles off the road. He estimated the maximum wait time for an autonomous vehicle would be 20 minutes at peak travel times.

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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.

He also explained why nuTonomy is currently testing its vehicles in Singapore and Boston’s Seaport District. He described Singapore as a good initial test site because of the favorable regulatory environment, the mild climate, the well-behaved drivers, and the tech-savvy population.

Boston, by contrast, offers a favorable regulatory climate and a tech-savvy population, but the weather is far more challenging and the driving more difficult, he said. “The driving behavior is unique,” Iagnemma said. “We are able to break things fairly easily in Boston.”

The nuTonomy executive also said Boston presents other challenges. He noted Silver Line buses in Boston bend in the middle, which makes it difficult for an autonomous car’s software to recognize the bus as a bus. He also said seagulls in Boston sometimes look like children to an autonomous vehicle, prompting the vehicle to stop.