Commuting times and transportation options will once again be a critical issue throughout metropolitan Boston, as workers and employers prepare for increased return to the workplace this fall. Massachusetts’ transportation system must continue to evolve, as we look to meet the current and future needs of our economy, the workforce and climate emission goals. Fortunately, there are real paths forward with solutions available this year.

New incentives are needed to encourage riders to choose public transit, especially this fall. The commonwealth’s economic recovery will be heavily influenced by the performance of our public transit system and whether it can draw riders back as companies return to in-person work. The entire region cannot afford to fall back to the roadway congestion that dominated our highways before the pandemic, and there are real concerns traffic could be worse.

New Fare Ideas a Must

Changing the cost of a transit trip can be an easy solution that does not add cars onto the highways. Unfortunately, the current MBTA fare products, like monthly passes, cater to pre-pandemic work schedules and routines. It is time to move beyond this approach and appeal to the commuters with now operate with a hybrid work schedule. This means temporary promotions, monthly plans, discounted rates for short-term passes – like a 3-day ticket – and even free parking at commuter rail stations.

Other transit agencies throughout the nation are tying on these ideas. In California, the BART system is offering 50 percent off ticket prices for September. The Chicago Transit Authority implemented large discounts on their multiday unlimited ride passes And the SEPTA system in Philadelphia created a brand-new, three-day “convenience pass.”  The MBTA deserves credit for a partnering with the city of Boston for piloting free fares on the Route 28 bus line that serves Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, but we also need a systemwide approach beyond Boston.

The MBTA is in a great position to address these concerns of riders and employers. In the past year, they took advantage of fewer cars on the roads to accelerate major repair efforts to the Blue Line’s tunnels and the Green Line’s tracks, while also expanding bus rapid transit lanes throughout the region. These improvements are already helping riders to travel faster will continue to benefit the system for years to come.

This is also a rare moment when financial resources are available at the MBTA, as the result of the federal COVID-19 relief bills, and the MBTA is planning to spend these federal funds gradually over the next three years. This reserve could be a backstop if any new fare promotion causes fare collections to decline, even though any well-designed incentives  are more likely to generate additional revenue to the MBTA. After all, you do not collect money from the commuters who see transit fares as too expensive, choose to drive or elect to continue working from home.

Get Projects Shovel-Ready

In the longer term, the biggest opportunities for change continue to be found through the Biden administration’s infrastructure program. It is very encouraging that Congress is moving forward on multiple paths to complete a major infrastructure bill, but this does not automatically mean the MTBA will benefit.  We know from the experience during the Obama administration’s own infrastructure bill in 2009 that there will be a nationwide competition for federal dollars after the bill passes.

MassDOT and the MBTA should be taking this time to move capital projects forward through planning and design phases, so that Massachusetts is viewed as a place where construction can begin under optimal timelines. These efforts at the state level can give the commonwealth a head start over other places in the country and make a meaningful impression before the administration shifts towards evaluating how to spend infrastructure dollars once the long legislative process is completed.

We already know the federal government will be looking to deliver transit projects that reduce carbon emissions, expand mass transit capacity, accelerate the use of electric vehicles and complete climate resiliency infrastructure efforts. There are several projects in Massachusetts aligned with these goals, but they are far from shovel-ready, particularly the Regional Rail vision endorsed by the MBTA Control Board two years ago. With federal dollars at stake, the MBTA should be doing everything they can to help make these projects more attractive to the federal government.

There are real risks to the region if we fail to capitalize on this moment. Clever incentives on transit passes could be an effective way to help reduce the traffic congestion and encourage workers to return to the workplace through mass transit. Preparing major infrastructure projects in the next few months could mean the difference between federal dollars coming to Massachusetts, as opposed to other parts of the country.

By conducting both an immediate and multi-year strategy at the same time, Massachusetts would be signaling to current workers, employers and future residents of Massachusetts that this area is worthy of investment. There are critical opportunities ahead for Massachusetts and it is time to move full speed ahead with our transportation solutions.

Rick Dimino is CEO of A Better City.

Full Speed Ahead on New Transportation Options

by Rick Dimino time to read: 3 min