Posted Apr 8, 2019 at 9:00 AM
Updated Apr 8, 2019 at 9:54 AM
The Massachusetts transportation system is a mess.
The problems are myriad, but generally speaking, fewer people are using public transportation at a time when population is growing. What public transportation does exist, isn’t designed well enough to get people where they need to go efficiently, and existing infrastructure actively works against those living in low-income communities, who arguably need it the most.
The preferred method of transportation -- individuals driving personal cars -- is the Bay State’s largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, which fuel rising seas and extreme weather, such as nor’easters.
Meanwhile, the Boston area was recently ranked for having the worst rush-hour traffic in the nation.
“The amount of need in the transportation sector is basically infinite,” said Stephanie Pollack, secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The challenge for state officials, including Pollack, is prioritizing these problems, and making investments on improvements while also forecasting how transportation needs and technology will change in the future.
The possible influx of self-driving vehicles, electrification and alternative transportation options could theoretically cut down on the number of cars on roadways, and experiments are already underway. Brookline on April 1 became the first municipality in Massachusetts to launch an electric scooter-sharing pilot program.
“I realized that if we are to make a dent in the carbon emissions reductions, we need to change transportation behavior away from the single-occupancy vehicle,” Brookline Selectwoman Heather Hamilton told the Brookline Tab. “I believe these types of mobility devices will help to get some people out of the car and into a bike lane.”
But predicting when and where those changes will happen, along with the speed at which technology will advance, is largely a crapshoot. And future developments do little for current commuters, who battle each day getting to and from jobs, schools and social gatherings.
Historically, planning officials have thought about transportation in terms of infrastructure, and not the transportation needs of people, which is contributing to a fall in ridership, according to Pollack.
“We need to help people get where they need to go, but here’s the problem -- many transportation officials know starkly little about people and where they need to go,” she said.
Transportation challenges in Massachusetts have been mounting for a long time, and have accelerated within the last decade. From 2010 to 2017, the Bay State added 350,000 net new jobs, which has increased transportation demands, according to Steve Kadish, senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
“For those of us who were living in Massachusetts two or three years ago, during commuting times, the roads and (MBTA) would feel squeezed,” Kadish said. “This is a terrific problem to have and many other states and communities would love to see this growth, but it’s an issue we need to address.”
The state projects Massachusetts’ population to grow by 600,000 residents by 2040, which is roughly equivalent to adding three Worcester-sized cities in terms of residents. By comparison, Boston was home to 685,000 people in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Massachusetts’ population is currently about 6.9 million people.
The addition of so many new people could be a boon for the state’s economy, but it will inevitably strain the already-challenged transportation system. And exacerbating the problem is the limited amount of affordable housing in Massachusetts, which is fueling a housing crisis.
“You cannot separate the issue of congestion from the issue of housing,” Pollack said. “The roads are more congested because people cannot afford homes near where they work, so they live farther from where they work, commute farther to their jobs, and then people are shocked that the roads are busier.”
To try and get a handle on the far-reaching challenges of transportation in Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in January 2018 created the Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth. Kadish was appointed chairman.
The second-term governor tasked the group with studying how the climate, electrification, self-driving vehicles, transit and mobility and land use and demographics will affect transportation in the future.
The commission in December released a final report outlining challenges and recommendations, which were discussed at an April 4 conference held at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge.
Among its recommendations, the commission urged Massachusetts to modernize its existing transit system, implement a strategy to capitalize on emerging technology like self-driving vehicles and reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by supporting and adopting more eco-friendly policies.
The commission also recommended inter-government collaboration and coordination, which makes sense in a state where local governments have a lot of control over municipal planning. Adding designated bus lines in Greater Boston, by example, would require extensive planning and agreement between municipal and state leaders.
“There needs to be an appreciation and articulation at the local level for how to make this happen,” said Karen Sawyer Conrad, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.
The regional planning group represents 15 communities, including Amesbury, Boxford, Georgetown, Newburyport and North Andover.
“Local cities and towns have a role to play,” Conrad added.
How cities and towns will pay for the future of transportation is up for debate, and the commission did not include any cost estimates with its recommendations.
The group did, however, suggest the state develop a long-term resource plan and to clean up its backlog of deferred maintenance at the MBTA and transportation department.
The MBTA, which operates most public transit in Greater Boston, along with the commuter rails, famously declared last year it finished its fiscal year with a balanced budget around the same time a crumbling garage forced closures at the Alewife T-stop on the Red Line in Cambridge.
A Better City, meanwhile, representing a group of members from the Massachusetts business community, released a report in February projecting an $8.4 billion gap in transportation funding requirements between 2019 and 2028.
Despite the funding challenges, Kadish says the bigger problem facing the Bay State is the need to prioritize for the future, and he’s hopeful his commission’s report will help inform the process moving forward.
“We really believe that this is a multigenerational moment that is important not just for the governor, the Legislature and whoever you think as the typical government leader, but also for businesses, organizations and individuals,” he said.
Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.