Solving our transportation mess will inevitably require help from the private sector. State government won’t be able to do it alone.
Now, the Baker administration is proposing ways that could make so-called public-private partnerships happen more quickly, more easily, and more frequently.
Governor Charlie Baker submitted a bond bill to the Legislature Thursday that would authorize $18 billion in transportation spending over 10 years. The package includes the usual Christmas list. Here’s a sampling of the items Baker wants under his tree: road improvements near the Cape Cod Canal bridges, more money for long-awaited projects such as the South Coast rail extension and the South Station expansion, and improved rail service from Worcester to Springfield.
But you know what really piqued the interest of business leaders? Proposed policy changes in the back of the bill. Among them: measures that would expedite how the Department of Transportation and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority work with private-sector partners. There are measures to streamline the procurement process and to better integrate design work with construction.
The Legislature passed a law in 2009 to encourage public-private partnerships, but it has barely been used. This legislation represents another attempt at getting it right, to draw more companies in the door.
Most notably, the bill contains language aimed at avoiding what went down in Quincy last year: A development at the MBTA’s North Quincy Station ground to a halt after Attorney General Maura Healey ruled the T broke the law by not bidding out work for a parking garage that would be built there. A private developer was going to build the garage, but it would have ultimately been owned by the T.
Baker’s bill would avoid another such situation by relaxing procurement rules to allow developers to move forward on a wide array of public transportation infrastructure — from staircases to stations — that would be part of their projects but deeded to the state or the MBTA. This element, in particular, drew kudos from the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, the Massachusetts High Technology Council, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
NAIOP Massachusetts’ chief executive, Tamara Small, praised the creative approaches in the bill. She pointed to the success of train-station projects built with developer financing, such as Boston Landing on the Framingham/Worcester Line in Brighton and Assembly Row on the Orange Line in Somerville.
Transit-oriented developments, she said, depend on a functioning transit system, and this bill can help ensure these kinds of projects are expedited.
Sometimes, for companies doing business with the state, waiting on the slow-grinding transportation bureaucracy can seem like taking the T at rush hour: Surely, this creaky machine can move faster than this. If the Legislature adopts Baker’s changes, maybe it will.
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber, said the bill indicates the administration is listening to business leaders as well as to everyday riders who complain that MBTA projects often move too slowly to address the system’s pressing needs.
Baker’s bond bill represents an important opening salvo in the Great Transportation Debate on Beacon Hill. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has vowed to tackle the issue this fall; the need has only become more urgent since the Red Line derailment and other MBTA snafus this summer.
Representative Bill Straus, DeLeo’s point person on transportation, said he’s interested in exploring ways to improve public-private partnerships and is keenly interested in what Baker has to say on the matter.
Rooney hopes to present recommendations to the Legislature from discussions being held by a variety of chambers and other business groups. The left-leaning Alliance for Business Leadership has also been hosting brainstorming sessions and will offer suggestions to lawmakers.
Yes, many executives want to see more revenue devoted to transportation. But there’s widespread agreement more revenue — maybe from higher gas taxes, additional tolls, or increased fees on Uber and Lyft rides — won’t be enough. Reforms are needed, too.
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.