Some of the state’s biggest challenges – housing and commute times – are proving to be harder nuts to crack than Gov. Maura Healey and her team may have bargained on. iStock illustration

Rising stars of the Healey administration, state transportation czar Monica Tibbits-Nutt and MBTA chief Phillip Eng, truly get it.

And by get it, I mean they understand what’s driving the exodus of everyday people from Massachusetts.

A rickety public transit system, traffic-clogged roads and sky-high home prices and rents have come together in a perfect storm that has made everyday life a grueling and economically unsustainable slog for too many people for quite a while now.

That was the reality two of the Healey administration’s top members very eloquently sketched out in a talk last week to members of NAIOP Massachusetts, which represents real estate executives and developers across the state.

“This is a beautiful place to live, we have beautiful history and wonderful communities throughout the commonwealth, except now nobody can afford to live in them and businesses can no longer afford to site here,” Tibbits-Nutt told the gathering at Foley Hoag’s 17th-floor offices in the Seaport District last Monday.

“We are losing people every week,” Tibbits-Nutt said.

But knowing what the problem is one thing; fixing it is another challenge altogether.

And it’s fair to wonder whether there will be anyone left in the state who isn’t either a millionaire or a pauper by the time the Healey administration is able to get its arms around this set of seemingly intractable challenges.

‘Can’t Fix Congestion Without Housing’

At the very least, progress is likely to be two steps forward and one step back given decades of neglected maintenance at the T and the NIMBY backlash to the Healey administration’s housing plans.

Tibbits-Nutt, who spent years working her way up the ladder in the housing and then transportation planning fields, argued the region’s transportation woes can’t be fixed without dealing with housing, and vice versa.

The cost of housing is so high that too many people are forced to buy or rent in the outer suburbs and beyond and then commute into urban core around Boston, clogging roads and highways and creating massive stress for all involved.

Tibbits-Nutt is among those long-haulers, making the trip into Boston from her home in Devens, the former army based that is now a major commercial hub with a small residential community.

“Congestion is probably the thing that keeps us up at night, right after safety,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “I live at Devens. [My commute] has been done in 45 minutes on federal holidays, but it can take up to two hours. This is where my family can afford to live.”

In hopes of killing two birds with one stone, the Healey administration has been pushing forward aggressively with implementing and enforcing the MBTA Communities Act, which requires cities and towns that have or are near public transit stations to open their doors to new apartments and condominiums.

The aim is simple: To build more desperately needed housing while getting people out of their cars and onto trains and buses, she noted.

“We cannot fix congestion if we cannot fix housing,” Tibbits-Nutt said.

But fixing housing is turning out to be a lot more difficult than the Healey administration may have bargained on. Yes, the vast majority of cities and towns have submitted – or have pledged to submit – plans to the state that would rezone land and sites around or near T stations for the development of new, multifamily housing.

However, voters in Milton recently struck down the MBTA Communities-compliant zoning plan drawn up by town officials, leading to an upsurge in grumbling from other suburbs who also feel put upon by having to revamp their zoning rules and potentially open the way for new apartment and condo buildings.

Slow Zones Come Back?

Eng, the MBTA’s general manager, also reported progress in taking on some of the maintenance and other issues that have plagued the T for years now.

Eng has installed new management at the top while also going on a hiring spree in a bid to fill the transit agency’s depleted ranks.

The T has also ramped up maintenance work, with the aim of putting an end to myriad speed restrictions that have slowed trains to a crawl in some spots.

But after a couple months of big improvements after intensive track and maintenance work, the number of slow zones began to increase again in February, the Boston Globe reported last week.

Scott Van Voorhis

T spokesperson Joe Pesaturo told the paper some of the new slow zones reflect problems the human eye can’t detect but a track-scanning machine can, while others were picked up in normal inspections.

But last week, Eng suggested some of the slow zones were due to work done last year that had to be re-done. Crews apparently didn’t have enough time to do the job right before this year’s campaign of multi-week repair shutdowns across the T’s subway network.

“The recent things that we’re seeing on some of the other corridors, where we did a lot of work last year before we started going into these full diversions, we’ve seen areas where speed restrictions are coming back,” he said. “And that’s because when you’re trying to do work in a non-revenue period of time, for literally maybe two hours a night, you really can’t mobilize crews, you can’t mobilize equipment and then do those repairs timely then expect to be able to have service running in the morning. It really was very inefficient.”

As I said earlier, sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back.

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist and publisher of the Contrarian Boston newsletter; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at

It’s Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Fixing Our Biggest Problems

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 4 min