We need some Frank Sargent political courage

The status quo mobility network is failing

We can learn from our history.

Forty-six years ago the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Frank Sargent, made a valiant effort to change the course of Massachusetts’s transportation policy. It was in many ways an act of defiance against conventional wisdom, a break from old policies that were increasingly harmful to quality of life, a move toward modernity, and an expression of political courage to take on entrenched special interests that profited from an unwise auto-centric approach to mobility.

Sargent came to office as a former highway commissioner, and he was John Volpe’s handpicked successor, so the prevailing view was that he would maintain a status quo transportation policy.  But Sargent was also an environmentalist and a wealthy man who did not come to public office needing to respond or cater to the parade of entrenched interests and lobbyists who benefitted from a highways-oriented policy and who had easy and frequent access to the power brokers of the State House.

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Sargent’s announcement, on February 11, 1970, that he had made “one of the most far-reaching and significant decisions I have made during my term as governor. I have decided to reverse the transportation policy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”  Sargent didn’t stop there.  He acknowledged that “nearly everyone was sure highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come.  But we were wrong.”

Imagine the power of those gubernatorial statements – “I have decided to reverse the transportation policy of the Commonwealth,” and “We were wrong.” This was not playing at the margins.  It was no floating of a trial balloon, no tentative step toward a true reform of the status quo.  It was a major shift, a bold redirection of where the state would place its funding emphasis.

Sargent’s vision reflected the changing attitudes of his time, and specifically two realities: an emerging awareness and concern about the environmental impacts of carbon emissions (the EPA began operating in 1970), and the awakening of citizen activists throughout Greater Boston who were no longer willing to stand idly by as their homes, businesses, and overall quality of life were diminished by an auto-centric transportation policy that disinvested in transit and ignored the importance of a livable public realm.   It also reflected a willingness to embrace new ideas, to see the future through a new lens, and to take a strong leadership position in an area that many political leaders try their mightiest to avoid.

Sargent’s change of policy wasn’t rhetorical or window dressing.  It set the stage for an era of significant investment in the public transportation system.  Of course, it helped that a governor who had perhaps an even greater passion for the importance of transit, Michael Dukakis, followed Sargent in the corner office.  But the die had been cast, and the great transport initiatives of that era – putting an end to the construction of the proposed Inner Belt highway and replacing it with what is now the Orange Line and the Southwest Corridor Park; extending the Orange and Red lines and completely rebuilding Harvard Square station – made transit accessible to thousands of people who had previously been locked out of public transportation and helped keep the regional economy moving through the 1980s and 1990s.

Nearly half a century later the systems built following Sargent’s announcement, and many others much older than that, are reaching (or have reached) the end of their useful lives, and need repair, replacement, and improvement. Signal systems, power systems, public announcement systems, tracks, and basic equipment – all these and more need attention. We see this played out daily as the T chronically fails to provide the quality of service we expect and deserve, not because anyone wants it to fail, but because there is only so much people can do without the resources to modernize a system of its age and condition.  The T’s resilience problem, as we know all too well, is not merely a winter issue, although winter weather conditions challenge it most severely.  Service reliability issues exist in all seasons and weather conditions.

Chronic disinvestment since 1991 has left the T with a $7 billion state of good repair backlog.  And the T’s Fiscal Control Board reminds us that the $7 billion figure is not a static number – it is, rather, the total cost if we fixed everything today, and paid for it today.  The real cost, which will of necessity be borne over time, will be much higher than that, approaching $25 billion all in. This is not a Boston problem.  The MBTA system extends its services to about 75 percent of the state’s population. Our deteriorated transit system is a problem that affects millions of state residents, threatening to degrade mobility, jobs growth, and the environment.  In the aftermath of the 2015 winter meltdown, in the aftermath of a recent 9.5 percent MBTA fare increase, there is still no comprehensive plan to raise the revenues necessary to address this groaning and critical public investment need.

What Frank Sargent said in 1972, in a letter to the Boston Transportation Planning Review initiative, is even more urgent and true today. The governor wrote: “The central tenet of the transportation policy that I find appropriate for the area inside Route 128 is that future investment must concentrate overwhelmingly upon the improvement of public transportation.”  That sentiment ought to be the lynchpin of transportation policy in this not-so-new century.

The status quo mobility network is failing. We see the evidence every day: of daily traffic congestion on the downtown interstate system that is so bad it’s as if we are returning to the gridlock days of the old elevated Central Artery; of a transit system that is struggling to keep up with demand, and unable to provide the levels of reliable, convenient service that we all believe are necessary in order to attract and maintain riders who seek nothing more than ease of mobility to work, home, school, entertainment, and health care.

The challenges are great, not simply because of the enormity of the task and the funding needs, but because the Greater Boston region is changing, and the transit system needs to be agile enough to change as well.  That means strategic expansion (worthy projects such as the Green Line Extension, Silver Line to Chelsea, Bus Rapid Transit along corridors of critical concern, and connecting the Blue and Red lines and the Blue Line to Lynn) must move forward.  It also may mean revisiting current bus routes to be certain that our traditional fixed routes are serving new population centers, and that we are keeping up with recent demographic changes, especially focused on people who have moved to the outer ring of communities surrounding Boston, many of whom have been displaced by high housing costs in the capital city.

Frank Sargent isn’t here today to urge us on to a wiser transportation policy, but we can take lessons from what he said, and did, and apply them to the moment.  We know that we cannot keep carbon emissions in check if we invite more cars to drive into and park in Boston.  We know that the economy won’t grow if we cannot get people from their origins to their destinations in a reliable, schedule-convenient and affordable way.  We know that we have a transit system that is in urgent need of funding and repair and improvement, and we also know that in order to keep pace with jobs growth and regional housing realities, we need to strategically expand the system to serve the needs of people outside the inner downtown core.  It is a task of Olympic proportions, and the civic leaders who were ready to push political heaven and earth to bring the 2024 Olympics here might consider that making a similar effort focused on improving our public transit system would be, in the long run, more generationally responsible and meaningful than any one-off sports event ever would have been.

I’m not naïve about the nature or the enormity of the challenge and the task ahead. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to take on the status quo, raise net new revenue, and change outdated policies. I know how powerful inertia can be, and how political fear can prevent many elected officials from taking action that may require some short-term pain in order to achieve long-term gain. But I believe there are many like-minded people who will agree with me that it is long past time to address these mobility issues head-on.

Meet the Author

We can learn a lot from our own history.  We can take lessons from the past, and from leaders like Frank Sargent who understood the value of pubic transportation and the importance of bold action.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.