Maybe this is the chance to get rid of dirty diesel trains and go all-electric on the commuter rail, or extend train service to Springfield? New cars for the Green Line, and how about that long-sought tunnel to connect the Red and Blue lines? Don’t forget those mega-projects in Allston and over the Cape Cod Canal.
With President Biden proposing an infrastructure package featuring hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation, officials and advocates in the industry are hurriedly drawing up plans in anticipation of a gusher of money flowing to their states’ roads and rails.
But in a country that has been clamoring for a big infrastructure bill for years, the wish lists are sure to get crowded, and the competition for the money fierce.
“There’s going to be more need and more interest than there is going to be funding available,” said Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “It will mean some projects are able to move forward, and others ... won’t.”
Massachusetts has a notorious reputation for its aging roads and rails, as well as the stifling pre-pandemic traffic congestion and endless hand-wringing about how to fix it. Debates about major projects often stretch years with no resolution in sight, and projects that do get underway can take years to complete.
If Congress buys into Biden’s pump-priming proposal, Massachusetts may no longer have money as an excuse for why it can’t fix at least some of the transportation issues that have dogged the state for so long.
It’s much too early to know how much money Massachusetts would get, and how much of it would be restricted to certain uses. And, though infrastructure spending is typically bipartisan popular, the current political climate suggests the president has a way to go to get it passed. For now, Biden’s proposal is just a set of ideas that still need to be written into legislative language, which will be subjected to months of political wrangling and debate about how to best direct the funding.
Yet for all of Massachusetts’s well-documented transportation needs and hopes, few of the state’s highest-profile concepts are at the point in the planning process that they could quickly get underway.
“There are many high-profile concept projects that are out there being discussed that, at this point, don’t qualify as anything like shovel-ready,” said state Representative William Straus, who co-chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee. “If the Commonwealth was given access to actual dollars tomorrow or next week or later this year, there’s nothing [with] those projects that would allow you to actually spend that money.”
For example, the Massachusetts Turnpike project in Allston — already years in planning — is still awaiting a key decision on whether to put the portion now on a viaduct at ground level, or keep it elevated. Although officials have tried to move it forward while working through that debate, the project cannot be fully designed and permitted until there is a decision about the viaduct. Other ideas, like a tunnel to link the Red and Blue lines, have sat around for years, only to be dusted off and revisited, then shelved again.
Some advocates who have been involved in the planning of projects wish the state would be more aggressive in having big jobs ready to go in the event federal money comes along.
“The state’s perspective has been that, ‘we can barely get projects out the door that we do have funding for,’” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency.
Still, there may be hope for these larger-scale projects under Biden’s infrastructure plan. The text of his proposal says the government wants to turn “‘shovel worthy’ ideas into ‘shovel ready’ projects.” That language suggests that some of the more wide-eyed initiatives still early in their development, such as the Cape Cod bridges or major transit expansions, could still be funded.
Baker administration officials insist the state is well-positioned to take advantage of the bounty that might come from Washington, noting, for example, that they have roughly tripled their annual spending on long-term MBTA projects since 2015.
“MassDOT and MBTA have built up strong capital capacity and are ready to immediately use any additional federal funding to fund our programs and projects,” said Kristen Pennucci, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
Still, with details still sparse and speculative, state officials declined to name any specific projects that they believe should get infrastructure funding, with one exception: the $1 billion-plus Cape Cod bridges replacement. Importantly, the bridges are owned by the federal government, which has announced plans to rebuild them. And congressman Bill Keating, who represents the Cape, said an infrastructure bill could be “helpful” to lock down money for the years-long rebuild that still has no funding source.
“They are a federal asset and there is an inherent federal responsibility to take care of the bridges,” Keating said. “This is like if [the congressional] Rayburn Office Building’s roof was leaking, who would pay for it? Well, it’s the federal government.”
The money would be especially welcome on the MBTA, where officials have acknowledged some uncertainty over future funding for long-term upgrades. Under Governor Charlie Baker, the MBTA has mostly focused on fixing and improving its existing infrastructure such as buying new buses and Red Line cars, as well as lower-profile but important work such as replacing signal systems and improving conditions at vehicle facilities.
There are other projects on the board that would expand MBTA service, such as extending the Silver Line to Everett, as well as increasing passenger capacity by buying larger Green Line trains and adding more bus-only lanes in parts of Boston to separate those vehicles from the city’s notorious traffic jams.
“The MBTA has many capital needs identified and uses available for any more funding that is received,” Pennucci said.
But here again, advocates wish the Baker administration had bigger ambitions beyond a punch list of fixes and modernization projects.
For example, Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, said the MBTA’s current to-do list is pretty unimaginative and hopes the state would fulfill some of the bigger ideas that have surfaced over the years. He noted the MBTA has recently been criticized by politicians on the North Shore, who complain a pledge in 2019 to electrify and improve commuter rail through Lynn has barely moved forward.
“The federal government won’t give you money for things that aren’t somewhere on a plan,” he said. “You’ve got to come up with a bold agenda. . . . It’s not that these ideas aren’t out there. It’s that they’re not developed into a cohesive agenda.”
Age-old arguments over repairing existing infrastructure or building new projects, and which projects to prioritize, may be unavoidable, said Tracy Baynard, a senior vice president at the Washington, D.C.-area lobbying firm McGuireWoods Consulting who focuses on infrastructure.
“This is where the states need to take the leadership of balancing all that,” she said. “You have to figure out how to address as many needs as possible in a way where they work together.”
For example, congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has already suggested that public transit should be prioritized over highway spending.
“For too long, our federal transportation investments have prioritized highways over public transit, which has exacerbated racial and economic inequality in Massachusetts and across the country,” she said in a statement.
Biden’s proposal includes $115 billion for roads and bridges, $85 billion for public transit, $25 billion for airports, and $80 billion for intercity rail such as Amtrak.
It also includes billions to add electric vehicle charging stations across the country and to make the vehicles more affordable for consumers. The latter could help burnish the EV market in Massachusetts, where the Baker administration has a goal to vastly increase the number of electric cars on the roads by 2030.
Among major projects, one of the most obvious priorities for Massachusetts could be the $1.2 billion plan to rebuild the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston. Already years in the making, it would straighten the long looping curve the highway makes through a former railyard, opening space for a new neighborhood, as well as adding a train station and bus, bike, and pedestrian connections.
That project, however, remains beset by the longstanding debate between the state and a huge coalition of stakeholders over whether to put the road at grade level or keep it on a viaduct that critics say has long blocked off the Charles River from that part of Boston. It also still lacks a finance plan.
Rick Dimino, president of the employer group A Better City, believes Biden’s plan provides a clear path forward for this project — but only if the state agrees to lower the highway, a concept he has long championed. He noted the president’s proposal includes a $20 billion fund to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments” in highways.
“It’s completely aligned with the language of this proposal,” Dimino said of lowering the turnpike. “Rebuilding the viaduct almost is anathema to this proposed piece of legislation. . . . The Baker administration should be taking hold of this signal.”
Other major initiatives that could get a boost in the proposal include the expansion of rail service from Boston to Springfield and the Berkshires. One of the project’s biggest supporters is congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the powerful Ways & Means committee. Neal’s office said he believes the Amtrak funding that Biden proposed as part of the package would help launch that service.