F our decades ago, the two of us were part of an extraordinary process that reinvented the way the state thinks about transportation and set the stage for an economic revival that we continue to enjoy today. That process was triggered by one of the most politically courageous decisions made by any modern Massachusetts governor: Governor Francis W. Sargent’s 1970 moratorium on new highway construction in Greater Boston.
In the late 1960s, business, labor, and other powerful interests believed building highways was essential to address traffic congestion and spur the moribund economy. But a diverse collection of opponents, initially focused on their own neighborhoods or particular causes, responded by coordinating their efforts and becoming not just anti-highway but pro-smart planning. Urban and suburban, working-class white and black, environmentalists and parish priests, this unlikely coalition convinced Sargent to change direction. “Nearly everyone was sure highways were the only answer to transportation problems,” the governor noted. “We were wrong.”
Sargent then launched the Boston Transportation Planning Review, completed 40 years ago this month. Over more than two years of meetings and countless conversations, its call for a “balanced transportation” approach laid the foundation for decades of progressive transportation policy in Massachusetts. The legacy of the Boston Transportation Planning Review is not only vastly improved transit and highway networks, but an economic rebirth of Boston and Massachusetts that was almost unimaginable four decades ago. It is hard to think of a comparable situation where the stakes were so enormous, the battle lines so drawn, and the nature of the change so extraordinary.
With transportation issues again at the top of the Commonwealth’s political agenda, we should look back at those long-ago events not out of nostalgia, but as a roadmap for the equally momentous decisions we face today. After decades of investment, Massachusetts has a vastly improved transportation system that includes an extensive network of highways, the MBTA, and regional transit systems serving virtually every part of the state. But this system and the people and businesses that depend on it are in trouble. From aging bridges in Springfield to the T’s financial woes, the state is paying the price for neglecting the basic maintenance and financial backing that any transportation system requires.
And we can’t just maintain what we’ve already built. For a first-class economic future, the Commonwealth requires a first-class transportation system. As state transportation officials have already spelled out, this future will rely heavily on public transportation and will focus highway funds on maintenance rather than expansion. Massachusetts needs to expand existing transit and build high-speed rail to serve the entire state. With so many projects awaiting action, the Commonwealth once again needs to set honest and rigorous priorities for transportation investment -— and create a long-term financing plan to efficiently implement those priorities.
We refuse to believe that Massachusetts can’t make transformative policy change. That’s what happened four decades ago with respect to transportation and, in more recent years, with sweeping reforms in K-12 education, health care, and the judiciary. So as we search for the political will to resolve the financial problems facing transportation today, we should step back and consider the bigger stakes involved — economic, social, and environmental — and be willing to pursue non-traditional strategies to get the job done.
Many of those involved in the extraordinary events that unfolded in the early 1970s went on to become visionary leaders at the local, state, and federal level — and not just in transportation. Massachusetts continues to be blessed with brilliant policy thinkers, dedicated public servants, and engaged community organizations. Today’s generation of political leaders, planners, and community activists are more than capable of taking courageous action to secure a prosperous future for Boston and the Commonwealth.
Four decades ago Massachusetts changed transportation policy and transformed our collective future for the better. The next 40 years require no less.