Spotlight Team takes on congestion

Do transpo policies reflect driving habits of politicians?

THE BOSTON GLOBE Spotlight Team, the same group that exposed corruption within the Catholic Church, turned its focus on Greater Boston traffic congestion on Tuesday. The first story in a three-part series rattled off a long list of dismal traffic statistics, but its real strength was in framing the issue in a way that helps you understand why we’re literally stuck in traffic and what we need to do about it.

“The question is now front and center: Can Greater Boston continue to thrive — or even function — without fundamentally rethinking its relationship to the car? And the answer is as inconvenient as it is true: Not for long,” says the report.

The first installment of the series targets political leaders, the second will focus on businesses, and the third will deal with Uber and Lyft. But the story forces all of us to look in the mirror. 

“The blame for our car-first culture extends beyond elected officials or the entrenched political establishment to corporate boardrooms and, in the end, to each of us. Ultimately every time we get behind the wheel, we must come to terms with a simple truism: We are traffic. And we are stuck in place.”

Still, it wouldn’t be a Spotlight Team report if it didn’t rake pols over the coals, and many of them come under fire for legislating the way they live. Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland lives a mile from a commuter rail station but infrequently uses it. She receives a $15,000 commuting allowance from the state and uses campaign funds to lease an Audi Q5. 

House Speaker Robert DeLeo lives in Winthrop, pockets the $15,000 commuter allowance, and spends more campaign funds than any other lawmaker on rented Fords, gas, and tolls.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is portrayed as a politician who is slowly coming around to the idea that more dramatic action is needed to reduce congestion, but the Globe’s story fails to mention that he is feeling heat on the transportation front from Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has called for a fare-free MBTA.

Gov. Charlie Baker lives a 10-minute walk from a commuter rail station in Swampscott but has never ridden the train and didn’t ride the subway until September, nearly five years after taking office. The Spotlight Team credits Baker with making major investments in the T, but concludes his car-centric travel habits are mirrored in his transportation priorities. The Spotlight report notes he has overseen two transit fare increases, but costs associated with driving – tolls, registration fees, driver’s license fees, and inspection charges have remained frozen since he took office in 2015.

The Globe report seems to conclude that dedicated bus lanes and congestion pricing, as used in London and Stockholm, are approaches that Boston should explore. Walsh, initially opposed, is now interested. But don’t expect Baker to jump on the bandwagon. He dismissed London-style congestion pricing in August, pointing to the findings of a congestion report (page 9) by his own administration that concluded the London experiment was having mixed results.

The Spotlight Team said the governor’s congestion report got basic facts wrong and drew conclusions disputed by British officials. “They’re just lying. They’re just ignoring facts,” said former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Meet the Author

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.

Stephanie Pollack, Baker’s transportation secretary, tells the Spotlight Team the London section of the Baker administration’s congestion report wasn’t meant to be the definitive research piece on London congestion pricing. She also notes that the London section wasn’t included in the “facts part” of the report.

Pollack, a former academic who once advocated for bold transportation initiatives, is now an acolyte for Baker’s incremental approach to change.  “I don’t see incrementalism as an insult,” Pollack said. “I see it as how you actually change things.”