The next governor can have their cake and eat it, too, on key issues voters care deeply about. The next governor can make the MBTA one of the best public transit agencies in America once more while also fighting climate change and enabling the creation of new housing and economic opportunities.
What’s the catch? They have to be bold and take on a challenge Beacon Hill has avoided for decades: investing in the MBTA by putting the agency’s finances on the right path.
Some will say that it’s impractical to find the money to fix the backlog of deferred maintenance, modernize and expand transit. Or that it’s impractical to build the hundreds of thousands of new homes Massachusetts needs. I’d argue that it’s impractical to expect that the region will continue to prosper and grow with the nation’s worst traffic and housing costs that match or exceed New York City, and even San Francisco by some estimates.
Addressing persistent issues of underfunding, understaffing and deferred maintenance at the T, as well as electrifying the commuter rail and making it fully accessible, will help coax people out of their cars and reduce traffic congestion. It will also make housing and lab development more viable in Gateway Cities and lift up low-income workers across the state through faster, cheaper commutes and new jobs building the transportation system of the future.
Two Areas Need Focus
Investing in the modernization of our commuter rail system is one key way our next governor can transform the commonwealth for the better.
Today’s commuter rail system uses lumbering, dirty diesel locomotives and is still too slow and infrequent to attract riders outside of the morning and evening rush periods. The initiative to remake this system into Regional Rail –an electrified system wherein trains operate every 15-30 minutes or better all day, with more affordable fares, full accessibility and better integration with the rest of the transit system – would be transformative for businesses from Manchester to New Bedford.
It would also make the landmark MBTA Communities zoning reform more effective by adding capacity to a commuter rail network that was bursting at the seams in 2019.
The next governor’s other major opportunity can be found in the MBTA’s Bus Network Redesign and the Bus Electrification programs. The MBTA is already hard at work on these transformative investments but the next governor can ensure their success by addressing long-term issues with the T’s capacity – both in capital delivery and operations.
The MBTA recently announced that a 25 percent increase in service hours will allow it to redesign the bus network without having some of the trade-offs originally present in its redesign. And with additional operations funding the T can expand bus service in the urban core as well as the suburbs, enabling more people to rely less on polluting, traffic-causing cars to get around. The Bus Electrification Program also offers an opportunity to build clean, quiet bus garages that can anchor mixed-use multifamily developments and leverage public land to both provide clean bus service and economic development at the same time.
Businesses Rely on Transit
If we want to tackle the challenges of climate change, affordable housing, inequality and more, we have to invest. Public transportation is the linchpin of these efforts. Contrary to expectations, the COVID-driven shift to working from home or a hybrid home-office situation has not reduced traffic. We can’t “get away with” relying solely on the spread of electric cars for the region’s transportation needs, as Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration seem to think. EVs, while important, will still be too expensive for many Bay Staters to operate. They also don’t solve our congestion problem, and still pollute through tire particles and the supply chains that produce these vehicles.
More importantly, commutes are not the sole reason the next governor should lean into improving transit, especially not with benefits for businesses in mind. People use transit to get groceries and hang out with friends, but also to visit local businesses. Growing ridership is important, both for reducing the impact of traffic on Massachusetts’ businesses and because better transit means more people walking and biking. There is ample evidence that businesses in walkable neighborhoods are more resilient and better at surviving the competition from online businesses. The recovery of the region’s busiest and arguably important neighborhood, downtown Boston, depends on making transit more reliable, affordable and expansive.
According to A Better City’s 2018 report, “The Transportation Dividend,” the MBTA is a huge factor in the success of the Greater Boston economy, which was responsible for 84 percent of the commonwealth’s GDP. According to the report, “Metropolitan Boston produces six times as much gross domestic product per square mile as the national metropolitan average.” Furthermore, the knowledge-based industries driving this growth are uniquely positioned to benefit from investments like Regional Rail that further reduce transaction costs for these businesses.
With our institutions of higher education, our medical centers, our innovative business and nonprofit sectors, Boston should be leading the way. With a world-class regional public transportation system driving greater mobility, decarbonization and lower cost of living, Greater Boston will be the region of the future. The risk is minimal – these are proven technologies – the investment moderate and the potential gains enormous. We have only to decide to act.
Jarred Johnson is executive director of the transit advocacy nonprofit TransitMatters.