As he manages the state through excruciating fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Charlie Baker has a lot on his plate. So much, that getting behind a strong and creative transportation agenda may not seem like a front-burner issue. But it should be — along with choosing a strong and creative transportation leader to carry it out after the departure of Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack.
After Pollack announced she was leaving Baker’s cabinet for a position in the Federal Highway Administration, Jamey L. Tesler, head of the Registry of Motor Vehicles and former chief operating officer at the Department of Transportation under Pollack, was promoted to acting secretary. The Baker administration declined to discuss any post-Pollack plans for the agency. But whether Baker wants to talk about it or not, when it comes to transportation, he’s at a critical fork in the road. Will he move beyond the small-bore thinking of the past six years — or stick with it and doom Massachusetts to a future of failing infrastructure and inadequate public transit?
Decisions made now about public transit, highway congestion, and major infrastructure projects will affect how people move around in Massachusetts for the next 30 or 40 years. And those decisions, “as much as the governor’s COVID-19 response, will determine his legacy,” said Representative William M. Straus, who chairs the joint legislative Committee on Transportation.
Politically, this is a great time to forge ahead with big thinking. The stars are aligning in a way that Massachusetts hasn’t seen since the days when House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Reprsentative Joe Moakley, and Governor Michael Dukakis got behind the Big Dig. President Biden is “an infrastructure and train guy,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, the vice chair of the transportation committee, and “the Biden domestic agenda goes right through Richie Neal’s desk,” he added, referring to US Representative Richard Neal, the powerful House Ways and Means chairman. Representative Katherine Clark, another member of the Massachusetts delegation, recently became assistant speaker; and as a Harvard graduate, even Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s transportation secretary, has a Massachusetts connection.
So the time is right for Baker to put his foot on the gas pedal when it comes to transportation policy. Unfortunately, that has never been his passion, perhaps because way back in the administration of Governor Bill Weld, Baker was the one who came up with a way to pay for Big Dig overruns — by shifting the debt to the T. During his first term as governor, he was forced to confront longstanding public transit deficiencies after record snowfall brought the T and commuter rail to a halt. Since then, the Baker administration has worked to bring down costs at the T and ramp up some capital programs, such as the Green Line extension and South Coast Rail, and taken on some worthy causes like creating bus lanes. That’s fine, but as transit advocate Chris Dempsey sees it, none of it is “transformational” — and a lot of what Baker says and does is contradictory.
Baker has resisted congestion pricing aimed at reducing traffic and pollution, arguing that it hurts people with the least commuting flexibility. After proposing a fee increase on Uber and Lyft trips in 2020, he vetoed a proposal that would do just that. He has also been unenthusiastic about a proposal to expand rail service between Central and Western Massachusetts. Infrastructure plans are also on hold. Last November, Pollack put off a decision on replacing a deteriorating stretch of the elevated Massachusetts turnpike at the I-90 Allston interchange. Meanwhile, service has been slashed on the T and commuter rail in ways that undermine their long-term viability, due to the short-term decrease in ridership connected to the coronavirus. By doing that, Baker is sacrificing his own “transit-oriented development” plans, which link housing development to public transit access.
The Baker administration actually produced a well-executed, forward-looking plan, released in December 2018 by the Commission on the Future of Transportation — a group headed by Steve Kadish, who served as Baker’s chief of staff for three years. After generating positive reviews, the report disappeared from view.
The pandemic has given Baker an excuse to ignore these major transportation issues. But he does it at great risk, said James Aloisi, a former transportation secretary and public transit advocate. This is the time for planning for the future, not for retrenchment: “The service has to be ready when people are ready to use it,” said Aloisi.
Baker is halfway through his second term; he hasn’t said if he plans to seek reelection. Whatever his decision, what he does over the next two years concerning transportation will have a huge impact on the future state of transportation in Massachusetts.
Please don’t squander the moment, governor.
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