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The governor needs a transportation czar

Troubled bridges over Cape Cod Canal waters. It could cost as much as $4 billion to replace the Sagamore Bridge (left) and the Bourne Bridge.David Kamerman/Globe Staff

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The Green Line extension is finally finished, but Massachusetts has a lengthy to-do list of big-ticket transportation projects to replace dangerously obsolete infrastructure and speed commutes by car, subway, and rail.

At the top of the list: replacing the Depression-era Sagamore and Bourne bridges and straightening a tricky strip of the MassPike to make it safer and clear the way for development of the old Beacon Park rail yard in Allston.


There are also long overdue strategic proposals — connecting the Red and Blue Lines, expanding South Station to improve access to the Seaport, upgrading rail service from North Station to Kendall, Chelsea, and Lynn, and overhauling rail service linking Boston with Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield — that could get thousands of cars off the state’s congested roads, improve equitable accessibility, and support economic growth.

But after years — sometimes decades — of discussion and planning, most of these projects seem to be going nowhere fast.

Most recently, the feds in January rejected funding applications for the Cape bridge replacements and MassPike reconfiguration. (President Biden has included $350 million in his budget proposal for the bridges, which could cost as much as $4 billion to replace, but there’s no guarantee the money will make it through Congress.)

Our new governor has a lot on her plate, but now’s the time to light a fire under the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Both organizations must do a far better job planning and locking up the federal funding needed for mega projects.

For an expert’s take on what the state’s priorities should be, I spoke with Fred Salvucci, who served as transportation secretary for then-governor Mike Dukakis, played a key role getting the Big Dig launched, and is now a senior lecturer at MIT.


Governor Maura Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll take the Red Line from Park street station to take a tour of MBTA Operations Control Center on Feb. 2, 2023.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Here are a few key recommendations that he would offer Governor Maura Healey.

1. Make it unambiguously clear that MassDOT and the MBTA have to up their game.

Salvucci says transportation modernization in the state has been hampered by a “philosophy of austerity” across past administrations that “postpones doing the kinds of preparation that’s required to be ready” when federal dollars are available. Lack of shovel-ready plans and poorly executed funding applications seem to have played a role in the feds’ rejection of the Cape bridges and MassPike requests.

“The right signal from the governor sends a message to the bureaucrats to think broadly and be aggressive. Let’s get this moving. . . . If you spend a little money on engineering, and then the project doesn’t make it, it’s better than not spending it and missing the opportunity when it comes,” Salvucci said.

2. Find a proven executive with deep mass transit experience to fill the open MBTA general manager position. And fast, because there is a lot to do, including resolving a critical shortage of drivers and getting the dysfunctional Chinese manufacturer of the new Orange and Red line cars to clean up its act. Healey promised to do this ASAP, but it’s the middle of March, and there’s been no announcement yet.


3. Appoint a “strategic project czar” reporting directly to the secretary of transportation. The official would “focus on the region’s overall strategic needs by making sure that key projects are ready through implementation of robust and timely environmental planning and expeditious construction design-build techniques as used recently for the successful Green Line Extension,” Salvucci said.

For all his faults, William F. Callahan, a powerful commissioner of public works and chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, oversaw pivotal projects, including the extension of the MassPike into Boston, which made the Prudential Center possible and sparked development in the Back Bay.

“You need someone in charge who wakes up every morning and says, ‘Where are we going? How are we going to get it done?’ ‘’ is how Salvucci described the role.

Healey said her administration is “urgently moving forward” on key projects, including some of those I named above.

“We’ve been in close communication with our federal, state, and local partners on these projects and intend to aggressively compete for federal dollars when available,” she said in a statement.

She noted that her first budget proposes $650,000 for five full-time employees to work on the Boston-to-Pittsfield rail line, and $12.5 million to advance parts of the project, including track improvements at the Pittsfield Station and the study and design of Palmer Station. She also wants to spend $11 million on work for the Red-Blue connector.

Good start, governor. Now, about putting someone in charge of making it sure it all gets done?


Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which new MBTA subway cars are being built by a Chinese manufacturer. The cars are for the Orange and Red Lines.

Larry Edelman can be reached at Follow him @GlobeNewsEd.