Spotlight congestion investigation was McGrory’s idea

Faneuil Hall panel discussion suggests public consensus elusive

A clarification has been added to this story. 

BRIAN MCGRORY, the editor of the Boston Globe, said it was his idea for the newspaper’s Spotlight Team to launch an investigation of congestion in and around Boston and what to do about it.

Speaking at a Faneuil Hall event focused on the Spotlight Team’s three-part series, McGrory said he was worn out commuting into Boston by car from a western suburb and wanted to know why congestion, as well as his commute, seemed to be getting worse.

About six months after the Spotlight Team began its work, McGrory said Patricia Wen, the editor of the team, came to see him. She gave him an update on the team’s research, and said the data indicated the best course of action for him was to start coming into Boston on the commuter rail system. McGrory took her advice, even taking pictures of himself on the train to prove he was following through, and now takes commuter rail into Boston two to three times a week.

McGrory sounds like he was a relatively easy convert to public transit, but judging from a panel discussion with state and local officials there’s still nothing close to a consensus on what steps the state should take to deal with Greater Boston’s crippling congestion.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack sounded as if she wants no part of congestion pricing or any other measures that make driving less attractive for commuters. She said the Baker administration is focused on getting drivers out of their cars by giving them a better alternative for getting where they need to go. “We’re really focused on making public transit a much more attractive way of getting places,” Pollack said.

Pollack said putting up tolls on additional Massachusetts roads and investing the proceeds in initiatives to support transit, biking, or walking would require the passage of a new state law. But she gave no indication the Baker administration would push for such a law.

She indicated increased tolling on Massachusetts roads is not a high priority because it penalizes people for driving. She said she could support managed tolling – setting aside a lane on a busy highway for people willing to pay to use it. The theory is that as some drivers will shift to the toll lane for a speedier commute, allowing traffic in the other free lanes to move more quickly.

“It’s not about forcing people or punishing people. It’s about choice,” Pollack said. “That strikes me as a much fairer way if you want to use pricing as a means to the end of addressing congestion.”

Under existing federal law, the number of free lanes on a highway cannot be reduced, so the managed lane would have to be either built from scratch or possibly fashioned out of the breakdown lane or an HOV lane. Adding a lane to the Southeast Expressway or I-93 wouldn’t be cheap or easy. As Pollack said back in August, “we’re not really in the lane-building business in Massachusetts.” She noted it took 16 years and $420 million to add a lane to an 11-mile stretch of Route 128.

Pollack on Tuesday night was also quick to raise concerns about other transit proposals. She noted Los Angeles and Denver have spent billions of dollars building train networks, but any gain in ridership was offset by a drop in bus ridership.

She said she was excited about MBTA plans to transform the state’s commuter rail system into more of a subway-like system powered by electricity, but she sounded as if she had strong reservations about the estimated $20 billion to $30 billion price tag. She said even if rides triple on all of the 14 existing commuter rail lines, the system would still provide fewer rides than the T’s bus system. Pollack’s spokeswoman said later that the bus system provides about 400,000 rides on a typical day, while the commuter rail system provides 125,000. Boosting the number of commuter rail rides three times, to 375,000, would still be less. [A clarification has been added to this story to provide more detailed information.]

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, is in favor of increasing revenues for transportation in Massachusetts. But he was skeptical congestion pricing would work, said he had no idea whether the Legislature would support an increase in the gas tax, and indicated efforts to improve bus service would not come quickly.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s really tough,” he said of efforts to build dedicated bus lanes or set aside existing car lanes for bicycles. “It’s going to be one block at a time.”

In the Spotlight series, Pollack said she had not explored charging drivers tolls to enter Boston because city officials have shown no interest in doing that. Shirley Leung, a Globe columnist who moderated the panel discussion, asked Chris Osgood, the chief of streets for the city of Boston, whether he would back congestion pricing.

Osgood echoed comments by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh that it’s time to think boldly about a response to congestion, but he didn’t lay out a specific policy proposal. He did say, however, that it was no longer a question of whether roadway pricing should be implemented, but what is the best way to do it.

Mary Skelton Roberts, a transportation expert at the Barr Foundation, seemed to be a crowd favorite because she pushed for decisive action to get at least 140,000 commuters out of their cars.

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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.

Roberts favored some form of congestion pricing. She put the onus on employers to use carrots (free T passes, for example) or sticks (charge for parking) to convince their workers to use public transit. And she said the state and municipalities need to get much more serious about improving bus service. She noted Mexico City has launched bus rapid transit the length of seven major roadways in the last 10 years, while Boston has yet to do one.

“We’ve got to stop talking about it,” she said. “We’ve got to try something.”