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OPINION

The future of transportation in Boston could be bold — and bright

It’s been one year since the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation’s report peered into our transportation future. A lot has happened.

BOSTON, MA - 11/06/2019: View looking north from the Marriott Courtyard Hotel on Beverly Street. Traffic evening rush hour heading north and south over the Zakim Bridge Boston (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: SPOTLIGHT TOPIC
BOSTON, MA - 11/06/2019: View looking north from the Marriott Courtyard Hotel on Beverly Street. Traffic evening rush hour heading north and south over the Zakim Bridge Boston (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: SPOTLIGHT TOPICDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It’s been one year since the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation’s report peered into our transportation future and launched a bold set of recommendations to achieve reliable, clean, and accessible transportation for everyone in the Commonwealth. While there has been both progress and bumps, this anniversary provides an opportunity to look ahead and act.

Governor Charlie Baker gave the Commission an ambitious charge: examine transportation in light of technology changes, need for electrification, innovations in mobility services, climate, and trends in demographics. The time frame was 2040. Some important facts emerged to inform decision-making:

  • Massachusetts’s population is anticipated to grow by more than 600,000 — equivalent of another Boston — largely due to longer life expectancies and migration.
  • From 2010 to 2017, Massachusetts gained over 350,000 new jobs, putting intense pressure on at-capacity transportation system at peak commuting times.
  • Rush hour is a misnomer — congestion is constant on our roadways.
  • Transportation, housing, jobs, and climate are interconnected.
  • At 42 percent, transportation emissions are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas, nearly half from passenger vehicles.

The report’s findings provide a context to understand how different sectors work together, a multi-generational view, and guidance for action. It has served as the basis for many collaborative efforts of the business, environmental, land use planning, and governmental stakeholders to develop a 21st century transportation plan and the extent of consensus has been astounding.


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Focus on public transit improvement

We must prioritize investment in public transit to develop a robust, reliable, safe, and convenient network that gets people where they need to go. Not only will it alleviate congestion, but transit needs to accommodate the region’s growth and prosperity. When we invest in road infrastructure, we must prioritize person-throughput rather than vehicle-throughput, incentivizing shared rides and connections to transit.

Double-down on intersection of transportation, housing, and jobs

Where housing and jobs are located has a profound impact on transportation needs. More fully integrated housing, land-use, and multi-modal transportation policies support better use of resources. Further, the Commission’s call for reinventing commuter rail from one that centers around Boston to a system that connects regional hubs has implications for congestion and sustainable growth.

Recognize telecommunications

Transportation infrastructure is more than roads and rail. The transportation technology transformation underway is also about telecommunications infrastructure. It is the ability to call a ride, track a public bus, better manage traffic flow, and enable new technologies. While private sector does and will play the major role going forward, there is a need for state guidance and investment as well.

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Cut transportation greenhouse gases

The Commission made two bold recommendations related to transportation and climate. First, following the successful multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which helped reduce carbon dioxide from power plants by ~40 percent, the Commission proposed Massachusetts establish a similar program to reduce transportation sector emissions. Second, by 2040, all cars, light-duty trucks and buses sold in Massachusetts must be electric, as part of our efforts to meet state mandated climate targets. To achieve this goal, we must support electric vehicle infrastructure, incentives, and related policies.

Since the report, there has been unprecedented investment in our public transit system. The MBTA had $1 billion in improvements and plans for $10 billion over five years. The MBTA’s Fiscal Management Control Board backed efforts to pursue regional rail. Baker endorsed the Transportation Climate Initiative and Massachusetts is a leader among 12 states, and the governor filed an $18 billion transportation bond bill that is pending before the Legislature. There is much to commend.

When we invest in road infrastructure, we must prioritize person-throughput rather than vehicle-throughput

But there are five next steps to advance. First, support the Transportation Climate Initiative. It is the best way to tackle transportation’s role in emissions and invest in a sustainable system. Second, enact legislation that gives municipalities tools to build sustainable, affordable and transit-focused housing the economy desperately needs. Third, enact MBTA governance legislation for necessary continued improvements. Fourth, enact a robust financing approach to provide key statewide resources and enabling processes. Fifth, push strategic action to revision commuter rail, and establish statewide telecommunications and electric vehicle infrastructure.

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We all have a role to play in addressing our transportation challenges, from how we work to our consumer practices. Our government leaders must create policy and funding to build a future with good jobs and dependable, clean transportation.

We should take meaningful actions this year and every year so that we can accomplish this vital transformation. Let’s not let a legacy transportation system be our legacy to future generations.

Steven Kadish is a senior research fellow at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University. Rebecca Davis is deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Ken Kimmell is president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Eileen McAnneny is president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.