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Boston needs an emergency summit to address epic transportation problems

The Boston area is in the midst of its worst traffic crisis in the region’s history and yet leaders are discussing construction projects that are accessories instead of fundamentals

Morning rush hour traffic comes into Boston northbound on Interstate 93 through Dorchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

After non-storm highway traffic hit epic proportions earlier this month, Greater Boston should be asking its leaders two questions: Where are your priorities and where’s your sense of urgency?

One reason is officials are discussing the idea of building a $100 million pedestrian span to replace the shuttered Northern Avenue Bridge, even though there is another bridge between the Financial District and Seaport — with traffic lanes and sidewalks — just 100 yards down Atlantic Avenue.

Meanwhile, a traffic map aired recently by NBC10 reported that it took 110 minutes to drive from Woburn to the Zakim Bridge. That’s nearly two hours to go 11 miles. It was an improvement from the previous hour that morning, but similar to the slogs into town from the west and south.


The Boston area is in the midst of its worst traffic crisis in the region’s history, and yet leaders are discussing construction projects that are accessories instead of fundamentals. And even where emergency transportation spending is being considered, it’s not being prioritized or maximized.

Two weeks ago, the Legislature voted to give Governor Charlie Baker only $32 million of $50 million in extra MBTA funding he requested, despite a scathing report saying safety wasn’t a priority within the mass-transit system.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has promised a comprehensive review of transportation spending — and funding — next year. That’s a measured approach, but as the Globe Spotlight Team meticulously documented in its recent “Seeing Red” traffic series, the problem is here. The need for solutions is now.

To plot concrete actions that address the issue immediately, Governor Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, construction leaders such as John Fish and Lisa Wexler, and top transportation experts should hold an emergency traffic summit.

As Spotlight reported, there are 300,000 more cars and trucks on Metro region roads than there were just five years ago. The Southeast Expressway, designed for 50,000 vehicles per day, now handles an average of 200,000. The Red Line subway car that derailed at the JFK Station in June was built in 1969. Commuter rail trains were late two-thirds of the time during the snow-filled winter of 2015.


The summit attendees can get help from the city’s developers, who are experienced in logistics and handling traffic around construction zones. They can advise on physical fixes. They can also seek guidance from MIT’s Center Transportation and Logistics as well as similar institutions.

Political leaders are working on long-term solutions, but they are talking about fixes arriving in two to four years. They need to take interim steps to address the traffic that’s already strangling Greater Boston.

What good is a pedestrian bridge at Boston’s epicenter — as worthy as its bike paths, pedestrian plazas, and emergency vehicle lanes are — if workers and tourists can’t get there from here?

And if you think its $100-million price tag is set, consider I wrote a story for the Globe in 2005 about plans to rebuild the Longfellow Bridge for $70 million. The work was completed in 2018 — for $300 million.

Instead, leaders need to harness every existing dollar now, and spitball ideas. They showed such creativity in 2012, and won national acclaim when they replaced 14 bridges on a single highway in 10 weekends.


Some quick thoughts:

  • Ban parking on alternating sides of key roads to open bus lanes and, with speedier public transit, convince some drivers to abandon their cars.
  • Restore some of the $18 million the Legislature withheld from the governor’s MBTA funding request and use it to pay police officers to direct traffic at key intersections, or for conductors or engineers to staff more frequent commuter rail trains.
  • Have police officers crack down on double-parkers and all the “just-one-second” drivers who spark backups with their momentary self-indulgence.
  • Hire advertising agencies to create a “we’re-all-in-this-together” campaign to show the consequences of the worst of Massachusetts traffic habits: walking against pedestrian lights, and cutting into on- and off-ramps at the last moment. It’s a long shot with Boston drivers, but the ripple effects of these acts are profound.

In addition to these suggestions, groups such as Transportation for Massachusetts have broader, more far-reaching plans to increase transportation spending and concurrently reduce air pollution, including a gas-tax increase and congestion pricing.

Hours after that traffic reporter highlighted the 110-minute commute on I-93, a resident took to Facebook to report it took 3½ hours to make the 27-mile drive from North Andover to Massachusetts General Hospital. His wife had to get out of their vehicle on Storrow Drive and walk the remaining distance so she could make her doctor’s appointment on time.

It was for meniscus surgery on a painful knee.

After gridlock around the hospital lasting hours, drivers saluted a civilian who took matters into his own hands and started directing cars through an overburdened intersection.

It wasn’t high tech. It wasn’t long-term. But it addressed the problem while a bigger, better, more enduring fix could be implemented.


Glen Johnson is a former Globe political reporter. He previously worked as national transportation writer for the Associated Press.