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Commonwealth Magazine
By
Matt Casale

ACROSS THE COMMONWEALTH, our infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization and expansion, from our roads to bridges, to trains and buses, to subway and rail stations, to bike paths and more. Investments in transportation can connect us to jobs, education, and healthcare, reduce the time we spend stuck in traffic or waiting for a bus, grow our economy, and protect our environment. Despite substantial efforts, our transportation system is still falling apart faster than it can be repaired, and we are not making enough progress in building the system we need.

 

Our transportation woes are out of character. For example, while Massachusetts received high grades by US News & World Report in its recent state rankings in health care, employment, business environment, and even budget transparency, the Commonwealth is at the back of the pack (#45) when it comes to transportation infrastructure.

Let’s look at some of the symptoms. In its most recent Capital Investment Plan, MassDOT cataloged over 4,500 transportation projects, of which only about 1,800 were slated to receive any funding over the next five years (i.e., for every project funded at least in part, there are 1.5 unfunded projects).  The plan lacked sufficient funding for the necessary replacement of Green Line vehicles and MBTA buses, and failed to invest in growing our transportation system.  Just recently, several important services projects across the Commonwealth have been delayed, scaled back, or canceled because they were insufficiently funded.

In Boston, late night MBTA service was eliminated, leaving many riders who relied on the service stranded. The Green Line Extension, designed to bring much-needed light rail service to one of the most densely-populated areas in the country, was significantly scaled back after MassDOT concluded that the original project would exceed the budget. The South Coast Rail project has been delayed and an alternative route is being considered that would provide only very few daily trips. The planned purchase of new diesel multiple units for the Fairmount commuter rail line has been canceled and the request for bids for refurbished trains to be used instead has also been withdrawn for now. The I-90/Mass Turnpike Allston Interchange Improvement Project has stalled.  No funding has been set aside for the inland route to provide passenger rail service between Boston and Springfield.

To be sure, there are recent successes, including the Complete Streets program that encourages cities and towns to consider all roadway users, the procurement of Orange and Red Line vehicles, and the ongoing rehabilitations of Union Station and the I-91 viaduct in Springfield. And while the resources are lacking, the most recent Capital Investment Plan uses better criteria for evaluating projects, an important outcome of the Transportation Finance Act of 2013. Both of these successes will help ensure that transportation dollars are spent more fairly and wisely.All these projects were designed to address specific, pressing needs, none of which are now being fully addressed.

 

In February, as part of our work for the statewide coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, we released a report entitled Keeping on Track: Our Third Progress Report on Reforming and Funding Transportation Since Passage of the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Act of 2013. It is the latest of a series of reports that keep track of how the Commonwealth is implementing its strategy to raise and spend transportation dollars since passage of the Act in 2013. The findings of this year’s report make clear that we are short on resources, time, and ambition.

First, resources: As expected by the architects of the Transportation Finance Act, MassDOT is hundreds of millions of dollars short of what is necessary to both maintain and build the transportation system Massachusetts needs. When the 2013 act was passed, experts agreed that it did not solve our funding problems. They were right. Since then things have gotten worse. Revenue projections, which have been remarkably accurate so far, are unfortunately beginning to look more optimistic than reality.  In FY15, the overall transportation budget fell about $140 million short of 2013 projections. We were already underfunding transportation – now that’s only getting worse.

Second, time: Repair costs continue to rise as road decay outpaces funding. Already almost 40 percent of our non-interstate roads are not in good condition, and MassDOT expects this number will only continue to grow. In 10 years, at current funding levels, MassDOT forecasts that only 20 percent of state-owned roads will be in good or excellent condition. Over the same period, the number of structurally deficient bridges will start to trend upwards. And transportation officials recently acknowledged that fixing the MBTA could take 10 to 20 years – and even that estimate may be optimistic at the current spending rate. Our transportation network is wearing out faster than we are rebuilding it.

Finally, ambition: It is troubling that MassDOT has been unable to meet most of the performance measures set by the 2013 act. In fact, MassDOT has not even consistently reported on most of the performance measures set by the act, which called for a report on 10 metrics each year. These are real-world measures, such as reducing commute times, crashes, and fatalities. MassDOT employees are committed to fixing things and delivering on these targets, but they will never be able to meet them without the resources to do the job.

Transportation system breakdowns take a long time in coming, and once we are in a ditch it’s hard to get out. The serious effects of inadequate investment today in maintaining, modernizing, and expanding our transportation system will be felt most sharply in the future.

Meet the Author

Matthew Casale

Staff attorney, MassPIRG Education Fund

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The Keeping on Track report shows that only with significant additional transportation funding, better planning, and strict accountability and reporting of performance measures, will the Commonwealth avoid system failure. And investment in transportation is money well spent. It is time we stop scaling back and start setting, and achieving, higher goals.

 

Matthew Casale is a staff attorney at the MASSPIRG Education Fund and Rafael Mares is vice president and program director, healthy community and environmental justice, at the Conservation Law Foundation.

 

 

 
 
 
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