How should the state fund its ailing transportation system?
Massachusetts residents continue to feel squeezed when it comes to transportation. While no surprise to commuters, a study published earlier this year named Boston the worst city for rush-hour traffic in America. Meanwhile, if you live in the Berkshires and rely on public transit, bus service is not available after 7 p.m. on weekdays or on Sundays.
The good news is that momentum is building in Massachusetts to once again tackle the state’s thorniest transportation issue: how to appropriately fund the system. The recent derailments on the Red and Green Lines have only heightened calls for investment. The business community, advocates, and other stakeholders agree that there need to be new ways to relieve traffic, invest in transit, support new mobility solutions, and fund the system.
Here are four recommendations, shaped from the lessons I learned when I served as transportation secretary during the last serious revenue debate. That debate achieved a modest 3 cent per gallon gas tax increase, but, as was predicted at the time, was not enough to deliver a transformative transportation system.
First, the revenue debate should be framed by answering a fundamental question: What problem are we solving? Revenue itself should not be the goal, but a means to a policy end. For example, should the state prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing traffic congestion in Boston, accelerating new mobility solutions, or improving rural transportation needs? Answering this question should cause leaders to contemplate the right mix of revenue, such as imposing a fee on high-polluting cars and trucks, as London has recently done, reducing tolls between rush hours to encourage off-peak travel.
Second, the state should fund outcomes, not big projects per se. When I served as secretary, stakeholders usually argued for projects rather than outcomes. If the state decides that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the most important policy goal, then are the Red-Blue Connector, the North-South Rail Link, or other projects that have been on the drawing board for decades still the best means to achieve today’s goals? The current debate should be brutally honest about the most effective and efficient ways to achieve the right outcomes based on hard evidence. We’ve learned that even small projects, like using traffic cones to create bus-only lanes in Everett, are not only low cost, but effective interventions with impactful outcomes.
Third, don’t solve today’s problems by funding yesterday’s solutions. At no time since the introduction of the car 100 years ago has mobility changed as rapidly as it is changing today. Ride-hailing services, driverless cars, and electric scooters are among the myriad new options either available now or coming soon. In this revenue conversation, leaders should demand bold and innovative solutions to today’s challenges. For example, as the MBTA weighs how it will replace the vintage 1946 Mattapan High Speed Line trolleys, why not pilot an autonomous shuttle bus, perhaps through a private-public partnership? Given that most of the Mattapan line is separated from regular traffic, there is a unique opportunity to think beyond the current trolley options under consideration.
Last, be sure to put forth a plan based on both revenue and reform. There is no doubt the transportation system needs more revenue; however, there are opportunities to spend better the revenue we do have. For example, more than 10 percent of the MBTA’s fiscal year 2020 operating budget will be dedicated to pension and retiree health care costs. Those liabilities are getting worse; as was recently reported, the T’s pension fund can cover only half of its current liabilities, a danger zone for pension health. Yet new MBTA retirement rules still allow employees with 25 years of service to retire at age 55. These rules should be reformed in line with today’s realities of retirement.
While the Baker administration deserves credit for continuing to implement transportation reform, much work and opportunity remains as we embark on a way to fund and deliver a transportation system that works for all users in Massachusetts.
Rich Davey, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, served as the Massachusetts transportation secretary from 2011 to 2014.