BOSTON IS growing at a pace not seen in the better part of a century. The city now has more residents than it has at any point since the 1970s, and has arrived at the renaissance moment city leaders have been chasing for 60 years. There’s no reason the city can’t keep up with the growth it’s seeing now, as long as it can build places for all these new people to live.
New homes equal new residents, and new residents equal growth. It sounds like a straightforward equation, but it isn’t. Boston doesn’t control its own development fate. As tough as many of Boston’s neighborhoods can be on developers, the biggest threat to the city’s growth lies with legislators on Beacon Hill. Lawmakers are starving the MBTA of funds the transit agency needs to support the Boston region’s growth. And as long as the T’s finances remain anemic, robust growth in Boston will be unsustainable.
Boston has been meeting the boom by adding height downtown and filling in its outlying neighborhoods. And whether it’s at the huge new Filene’s tower downtown, or on Roxbury’s old Bartlett bus yard, or at Jackson Square and Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, or at the old Boston Herald plant in the South End, or in the Seaport, the housing developments rising are oriented around the MBTA. It’s the same story in Cambridge, Somerville, Quincy, Medford, and Malden, where major new housing initiatives come tied to direct subway access, and in Worcester, Lowell, Haverhill, and Brockton, where Boston-bound commuter rail lines have helped sell major downtown projects.
This is as it should be. Boston and its surrounding communities wouldn’t be able to physically accommodate the growth they’re seeing now if every new resident arrived in a Buick. The alternative needs some serious work, though: Boston-area development is pumping thousands of new riders into a system that doesn’t work as it is.
Beacon Hill lawmakers plugged the T’s operating deficit earlier this year, essentially level-funding an inadequate level of service, and leaving a huge list of key capital projects unfunded. The region’s economic future hinges on a transit system that’s physically incapable of meeting the need.
Beacon Hill has two choices, then. Lawmakers can realize that a down payment on growth around the urban core will pay dividends statewide, and put some real money into new subway cars, diesel engines, track work, and buses. Or, they can let the metro region do what Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have done, and allow the Boston region to raise its own transit funds, from a regional payroll tax, new local sales taxes, or some other means. If the Boston area is going to keep growing, there isn’t a third option. State lawmakers need to get on board, or get out of the way.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.