We can’t follow on transportation; we must lead

Baker policies misaligned with sustainability goals

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, and that particularly includes time serving in public office.  For some, longevity in office can be a rare opportunity to make impactful change; for others, it can become a drag on creativity and effectiveness.  In Massachusetts, we are about to see a change at the top of the state’s transportation secretariat as the Biden administration has selected Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to become deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

The new secretary of transportation, Jamey Tesler, is someone I know well. He’s a top-notch appointment, a first-rate person with a first-rank intellect. I do not say this lightly: when I was transportation secretary, I appointed him to be my chief deputy despite push back from the governor’s office because Jamey had been an advisor to officials in prior Republican administrations.

I knew Jamey well enough to know that he was professional to the core, neither a partisan nor an ideologue. He was, instead, a talented lawyer, the kind of lawyer who counsels.  Counselling is an old-fashioned way to describe the lawyer’s role, but it is exactly the quality you want in a legal advisor – or in a public official.  It means someone who is thoughtful, measured, persuasive. Jamey’s more than a lawyer, of course. During our time working together in various capacities over the years, I appreciated Jamey’s intellectual curiosity, his inclination to embrace problem-solving and collaboration, and his essential decency as a human being.  For all these reasons and more I have confidence he will be a good secretary.

He has his work cut out for him.  Much remains incomplete, delayed, or undone. He is inheriting Massachusetts transportation policies that are misaligned with the needs of our time, profoundly inconsistent with state climate policy, and destined to set back efforts to improve the metro Boston economy and public health as we slowly but surely transition to the post-COVID era.

Of course, these are not the policies of the soon-to-be former secretary; they are, most decidedly, the policies of the Baker administration.  And therein lies the great challenge, and the likely frustration ahead, because cabinet secretaries do not set state policy and they too often do not even set transportation policy. Despite protestations to the contrary, governors (and their executive staff) tend to micromanage all aspects of the government they were elected to lead.

For a time, it appeared that Massachusetts was about to enter into a new phase in its transportation history, one that made sustainability, equity, and access priorities.  The governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation set the right tone as it cautioned that chronic traffic congestion, inequitable and inadequate modal alternatives to driving, and the importance of addressing air quality in metro Boston converged on one, simple but powerful principle: Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles.

Massachusetts needs to move more people in fewer vehicles.  That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic; it remains true today. There is no absence of clarity here: the pandemic won’t last forever (nothing ever does), and there is persuasive evidence (more than mere hope or conjecture) that the worst of it will be out of our lives before the end of 2021, thanks largely to efficacious vaccines and the adoption of behaviors (mask wearing in certain public settings; better hygiene) that help improve public health in a variety of ways.

COVID-19 is a massive pattern break, an event that permanently changes how people live. A different pattern break, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, permanently changed how we fly, how we gain access to public and private buildings, and altered the public realm with features designed to protect certain high-value public and private sector buildings from attack.  These changes were made largely as a matter of security necessity and common sense.  What changes will COVID-19 make to our lives that will be adopted on a large-scale basis?

The answer to that question is not immediately evident, despite many articles from pundits, prognosticators, and futurists who apparently have been imbued with clairvoyant wisdom. As Yogi Berra, said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  The real answer lies not in guesswork but in action, in the deliberate enactment of policies that respond to the pandemic in ways that are targeted to improve people’s lives.

In the transportation sector, improving lives means providing more modal alternatives and better access, attracting transit and rail riders to new service delivery models that respond to 21st century work and lifestyles, and altering streetscapes and the urban public realm to encourage more, safer cycling and walking.

Transportation policies that follow these guidelines will also improve public health by reducing particulates, improve economies (especially small business economies) by supporting foot traffic and agglomeration effects, improve social cohesion by providing an integrated egalitarian transport network. And it means doing all this equitably, addressing the access needs of people across regions and being mindful of the importance of affordable transit and rail service.

The Baker administration has embarked on a deliberate policy of following rather than leading.  It has embraced an auto mobility future by explicitly calling on commuter rail riders to drive and by focusing its transport sector emissions reduction policies primarily on the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. This commitment to an auto mobility future is enshrined in the Environmental Secretary’s Interim Clean Energy and Climate Plan, which promotes an electric vehicle-only approach to transport emissions reduction, with no action plan to encourage mode shift. This policy is enabled by Secretary Pollack’s decision, amplified by the governor, to take a passive “let’s wait and see” attitude about transit ridership return. This policy was rightly characterized in a New York Times editorial last week as “small-minded and short-sighted”.

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, specifically the winding down that will inevitably come with widespread vaccinations before the fall of 2021, the MBTA will find itself utterly unprepared to meet demand.  By definition, you cannot meet demand if your policy is to wait for riders to return before providing frequent and reliable service.  If the service is not ready when the riders are, the riders will turn to driving as a substitute. Rather than devote time to rethinking how to deliver transit service, a service model that adopts all day frequencies that accommodate flexible work hours and reduce crowding, the MBTA is cutting service, confusing riders, and playing “wait and see.”

The administration’s policies are outright antagonistic to transit, an attitude reflected in the governor’s veto of legislation increasing ride-hailing fees, his veto of means-tested fares, and his veto of a road pricing commission.  “We need to understand the future of work,” his veto message states, “and its impact on when, where, and how congestion will return.”  This statement embodies the flawed thinking that informs the administration’s policies: it assumes that government should be passive rather than proactive, and it assumes that road pricing is only something to be considered as a way to manage traffic congestion, rather than as a way to reduce public sector subsidy of auto mobility.

The administration’s policy towards the reconstruction of the Turnpike in Allston similarly reflects this antagonism toward sustainable mobility. This project is a prime example of a rare opportunity to provide better access and mobility while correcting the design and construction mistakes of mid-20th Century planning. An elevated highway that separates communities from the Charles River, that is by definition more expensive to maintain, with an unsafe, functionally deficient design featuring a badly curved alignment with severe reverse curves, ought to be replaced by an at-grade highway that opens up opportunities for critically important sustainable mobility features. These features include the Allston buffer park and Agganis Way connector, pedestrian and bike connections associated with the Grand Junction bridge over the Charles River, maintenance of two-track rail service on the Worcester commuter rail line throughout the construction period of the project to prioritize an early build West Station, and increased frequency of service on the Worcester-Framingham line, provisions for level boarding at Worcester Branch stations, and the addition of a third “passing track” in Wellesley, Natick, and Framingham.

These initiatives would reduce emissions along the I-90 corridor, provide better access to residents from Worcester to Boston, and support sustainable mobility in the Allston/Cambridge inner core communities.  The administration’s current inclination to abandon these important initiatives in favor of a “patch and repair” job that doubles down on auto mobility and kicks the can for another decade or more is emblematic of its auto-centric, unsustainable approach to building a better metro Boston following the pandemic.

These policies will inevitably increase auto mobility and regional and urban vehicle miles traveled. The consequence of increasing urban and suburban auto mobility has massive implications for metro Boston and statewide climate goals.  It also has significant impacts on the continuation and possible worsening of particulate matter emissions in inner core communities. A number of recent studies have demonstrated the severely negative public health implications of transportation sector emissions.  These issues are inextricably linked to social equity in inner core communities lsuch as Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston. It is not hyperbole to observe that these policies are rooted in old 20th Century, structurally racist and directionally elitist, thinking.

What’s worse, the Baker administration’s decarbonization plan for the transport sector is profoundly inconsistent, an inconsistency so glaring that (unless it is the result of pure cynicism) raises questions regarding the internal coordination of administration policy. As laid out in the interim climate plan forf2030, the state’s approach to reducing transportation sector emissions is an electric vehicle-only approach, one that is dismissive of mode shift or other policies that will also reduce emissions.

If the Commonwealth is committed to an electric vehicle only (or primarily) approach to decarbonization, the governor’s veto of a road pricing commission makes no sense.  By definition, a migration to electric vehicles means the end of the gas tax as the primary transportation funding source, and it means the end of any revenue anticipated from the Transportation Climate Initiative.  What revenue source will replace these?  The answer must be fair, transparent road pricing.  Failure to acknowledge this head-on is remarkable.

As the Baker administration finds itself calling for fairly rapid transition to an electric vehicle-only auto mobility paradigm, it continues to oppose or drag its feet on electrification of its regional rail network. The Commonwealth cannot lead from behind on this critical issue. If it is truly committed to a large-scale transition to electric vehicles, it must show leadership by committing to and advancing electrification of all commuter rail lines by 2035.

It must also commit to keep in place all current trolley electric bus systems and installing infrastructure necessary to begin the transition to battery electric buses. That will require new funding and include new garage and charging facilities as well as in-route charging infrastructure allowing the bus to top up its batteries at chargers located at selected stops along its route, extending its operating range throughout the day without requiring it to return to home base. These are not trivial investments, but they are essential if the Commonwealth means what it says, and desires to reduce transportation sector emissions primarily through an electrification initiative.

We are fast approaching an inflection point that will determine whether Massachusetts, and especially metro Boston, will build back better from the pandemic.  If we fail to transform transit service delivery to provide frequent all-day service; if we fail to remake urban streetscapes to provide dedicated bus lanes, safe protected cycling lanes, and complete streets; if we fail to encourage mode shift at a meaningful scale and on a regional basis, we will find ourselves returning to the deeply unsatisfactory pre-COVID status quo.  That would be generationally irresponsible.

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There’s still time to get this right, but the sands are quickly flowing through the hourglass.  The new transportation secretary has a lot on his plate. The administration’s policies remain misaligned with its own stated sustainability goals. These are the realities we must deal with as we work together to build a better future for everyone in metro Boston.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a board member of TransitMatters.