The Massachusetts economy is in the midst of a solid expansion, but weak global growth, geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the lingering impact of severe winter weather all weigh heavily on the Commonwealth’s outlook.
Mother Nature and global developments are beyond the control of state policy makers. But one sure way our leaders can maximize the prospects for long-term economic growth is by ensuring that our transportation system effectively and efficiently meets the needs of our people and industry.
The historic series of snowstorms has become what policy analysts refer to as a “focusing event.” The storms have not only called attention to the serious problems of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, but also to the inadequate roads, bridges, and transit systems that serve regions beyond Greater Boston.
The challenges facing the Commonwealth’s transportation system are not new, but they are substantial. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that nearly one in 10 bridges in Massachusetts was structurally deficient and one in five major roads was in poor condition. They estimated that poor road conditions alone cost drivers $2.3 billion per year in additional repair and operating costs, an average of over $478 per motorist.
This is but one example of how the inadequate condition of our transportation system costs us. Traffic congestion and unreliable public transit increase commute times, raise the cost of getting goods to market, and limit the amount of time we have for our families and communities.
During the last legislative session, state lawmakers implemented important management reforms and passed a 3 cent increase in the gasoline tax to help fund road, bridge, and other projects. They sensibly indexed this modest increase to inflation to ensure that the value of this much needed revenue would not decrease as the costs of operating these systems rose over time.
Last November, however, voters repealed the indexing provision, essentially cutting funding for transportation projects by an estimated $2 billion over the next decade.
Opponents of raising gas and other taxes to finance projects have long argued that the state needs to reform the transportation bureaucracy before investing more money in the system.
But such reforms, while necessary, will not in and of themselves be sufficient. Simply put, the state’s roads, bridges, and transit systems need more money.
After all, how many Massachusetts households and businesses rely on vehicles that were on the road in 1978, as the MBTA does? And when vehicles that have long since passed their useful life break down in severe weather, how many owners would focus their attention exclusively on negotiating a better deal with their mechanics?
The “reform before revenue” refrain misses the larger point that investments in transportation generate economic activity and ultimately more revenue. These investments are often followed by substantial increases in property values and property tax revenues. Just look at Union Square in Somerville, where the promise of the Green Line extension is driving real estate values higher.
Or consider the Big Dig, a project rightly criticized for being poorly managed and many billions of dollars over budget. In addition to substantially improving access to Boston, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project spurred many billions of dollars in real estate development along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and in the Seaport District.
The dramatic increases in the value of the land made developable by the Central Artery project resulted in large financial windfalls for local landowners and substantial property tax revenues for the city of Boston. Going forward, state leaders should consider implementing policies that capture some of these financial benefits and reinvest them in new transportation projects, upgrades, and improvements.
Without new sources of revenue, funding transportation becomes a zero-sum game, pitting the needs of Greater Boston against the rest of the state, which has patiently waited for transportation investments, in some cases for decades.
Perversely, some of those areas have seen their populations grow, the result of regionally unbalanced development that has led to rising housing and other costs in Greater Boston and made more distant communities affordable alternatives for workers and their families.
But without enough job opportunities in these regions, many must still commute into Greater Boston. This puts more pressure on our transportation system. It also helps to explain why, according to the Census Bureau, Greater Boston has the nation’s sixth highest share of “mega commuters” — those spending more than 90 minutes and traveling more than 50 miles to get to work.
Make no mistake, the people and employers of Massachusetts will pay whether or not we take action to improve our transportation infrastructure. Because at the end of the day, nobody rides for free.