We may be No. 1, but not in transportation

Mass. ranks 45th in nation due to decay and delay

AFTER CRUNCHING MORE than 60 metrics, U.S. News & World Report and the consulting firm McKinsey recently declared Massachusetts the #1 state in the nation. Our Commonwealth’s success is built on the strength of our education system (ranked at #1), health care (#2), and overall economy (#5). All Massachusetts residents can take pride in this recognition — it shows what we can achieve when we are united around important goals.

Quality education and health care, along with many other measures where Massachusetts is a leader, are key to the state’s long term prosperity and well-being. But just as important is another category studied by U.S. News where Massachusetts is playing catch-up: transportation.

Chris Dempsey

Chris Dempsey

It may come as no surprise that Massachusetts ranks 45th in the quality of our transportation network. That reflects the condition of our roads (#47) and bridges (#28), and the time we spend commuting (#47). Massachusetts performed comparatively well in per-capita ridership on public transportation (#8), but those of us who ride the T regularly or have tried to catch a bus after 7 p.m. in the Berkshires know that we can and should do much better.

These rankings reflect what people in Massachusetts experience every day: delay and decay. As well as we are performing in some areas, our economy, and our quality of life, is being held back by a transportation system that is just not ready for the 21st Century.

Congestion and delays cost people time and money. The average motorist in the Boston area spends 53 hours annually caught in congestion and detours, according to TRIP, a national research group. Statewide, delays cost us $8.3 billion per year, or $1,913 for the average driver in the Boston area, and $1,733 in Worcester.

And because transportation is interconnected, delays or disruptions in one mode ripple into others. The public understands this. A recent WBUR survey found that the single solution that motorists would prefer to reduce traffic is a better performing MBTA.

Drivers experience decay in the condition of our state and local road network. At the current rate of spending, the percentage of state owned, non-interstate road miles that will be in fair or poor condition is expected to increase from 36 percent to 80 percent by 2025, according to MassDOT.

A few years ago, there were 613 structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts. The state embarked on the Accelerated Bridge Program, and we made a real dent – down to 432. But that program has ended, and partly because our bridges are among the oldest in the country, the number is on the rise again.

Cities and towns don’t have sufficient funds to maintain their roads and bridges. The Massachusetts Municipal Association reports that the funding needed is more than triple the dollars actually budgeted.

Jesse Mermell

Jesse Mermell

And while U.S. News methodology did not measure the actual condition of our public transportation infrastructure, there is a backlog of over $7 billion in MBTA repairs. Broken transit just makes roadway congestion worse.

For many Massachusetts residents, our underperforming transit network is a barrier, when it should be a lifeline. Urban neighborhoods and rural communities alike are underserved, and inequality is persistent for those who are transit dependent. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s recent Regional Indicators report documents that the average black bus rider in Greater Boston spends 64 more hours per year commuting to work than the average white bus rider. We must do better. Here are three things we can do to boost our rankings in the years ahead:

Build Staff Capacity at MassDOT and the MBTA

Gov. Charlie Baker and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack have accurately stated that the MBTA cannot effectively spend all the capital funding it has today. Similar problems exist with MassDOT’s Highway and Road program. It is imperative that the state properly staffs and manages the transportation agencies charged with oversight and delivery of capital projects.

We can’t fix our infrastructure cost-effectively if we don’t have the staff to manage those projects. Early retirement incentive programs may help balance today’s budget, but can also work against our long-term interests. We can’t incentivize some of our most talented employees to leave when we have a significant project backlog. Let’s attract the best possible talent, as the MBTA did recently with the hiring of the Green Line Project Manager.

Find Additional Resources for Transportation

Ten years ago, a bipartisan commission identified the gap at a billion dollars a year just to maintain the current system. The cost of materials to build highways, bridges and rail systems has risen much faster than our capacity to pay for them. For every day we wait, this backlog gets more expensive. While the Legislature in 2013 made a start in addressing the funding gap, there’s a long way to go. We need to summon the will to invest responsibly.

Build a legacy

The transportation rankings in U.S. News reflect decades of neglect and misprioritization of resources. We didn’t get here overnight. So we need to think long-term about the needs and goals of our transportation system if we’re going to climb out of the hole and stay there. The decisions we make today will impact generations to come – let’s think long-term about priorities and needed resources so that we don’t leave future generations playing catch-up.

As champions of Massachusetts, we celebrate the innovation, the energy, and the talent that make this the single best state in which to live. That’s why, even though ranking #45 is a blemish we might normally want to sweep under the rug, we’ll be better off if we address it head on.

Meet the Author

Chris Dempsey

Former head / former candidate, Transportation for Massachusetts / State auditor
Meet the Author

Jesse Mermell

President, Alliance for Business Leadership
With commitment, resources, and an eye toward long-term growth, building and maintaining a transportation network worthy of Massachusetts’ future is entirely within our grasp. In ten years, we can and should run the table and be #1 in more U.S. News categories than we can count – starting with transportation. The Commonwealth will be better for it. Let’s get going.

Chris Dempsey is the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a statewide coalition working for a modern, reliable and efficient transportation network. Jesse Mermell is the president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, a non-partisan coalition of business leaders supporting social responsibility and sustainable economic growth.