Setting Transportation Goals

The good news is that the state’s leaders agree that, in the coming legislative term, we need to address our deficit in transportation infrastructure investment.

The issue is not new — in 2007, a distinguished commission concluded that need to spend about $1 billion per year more on roads, rail and public transportation. We did, in 2008, legislate┬áthe Accelerated Bridge Program to repair the bridges in most urgent need, but then the recession intervened. In 2009, we focused primarily on reforms and covering immediate operating needs. It has taken an other four years for leaders to feel confident enough in the economy to try to confront the larger issue.

Here’s the bad news, or at least the challenge, as we begin the discussion: There is no consensus about the scope of the fix. The 2007 Commission’s estimate of the investment deficit was based on solely on achieving a “state of good repair”.

As I’ve looked at the issue over the past few years, it has slowly dawned on me that we need to do much more than fix the current system. Stephanie Pollack at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern has documented that there are many parts of the MBTA network that are running near or beyond their capacity. What that means in practice is full trains and buses pushing past crowds of people waiting. For busy people, that experience doesn’t have to happen very often before they abandon the system — it’s clear that the ridership on a system that was not always running so close to overload would be even greater.

The Longwood Medical Area and Kendall Square, together with the great universities, are the innovation and employment engines that have kept Massachusetts healthier than the rest of the nation. Both of these areas are continuing to grow, but face real limits due to both road and transit congestion.

Because my district includes much of several branches of the Green Line, I have focused recently on the capacity challenges facing the LMA and the Back Bay as well as the service quality issues facing the residents of Fenway, Brighton and Allston. With more rolling stock, supported by upgraded signals and power systems, the old trolley lines could carry substantially more people with higher reliability and shortened travel times. But that’s an investment in the high hundreds of millions of dollars — can we make a successful case for that? Are there smaller investments with high return?

In Watertown and Belmont, the workhorse trolley buses (71 and 73) that carry people to Harvard Square down Mount Auburn Street are also often full to capacity and experience heavy delays queuing to cross Route 2. What could we do improve capacity and reduce travel times on these routes?

There is a wide range of uncomfortable options on the table as to how to raise more money to cover the investment deficit. There are no easy answers. Ultimately, the decisions about how much to raise, how to raise it and how to divide it will come out of very difficult, high level politics.

As the process moves forward, I will not pushing any particular funding approach. My main advocacy goal will be to help people recognize that the need is not to merely fix public transit, but to actually improve it.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.