Just as Stephanie Pollack prepared to take over as the state’s transportation czar, Massachusetts was hit by one of the biggest snowstorms in state history.
But instead of sitting the storm out, the new secretary of transportation was front and center as Governor Charlie Baker held press conferences on a travel ban that would shut down the T for one day.
We caught up with Pollack last week to talk about the future of the state’s transportation landscape. Her answers have been edited for length.
How do you feel the state responded to the blizzard? What lessons have you learned from it?
The blizzard response went very well, especially considering the magnitude of the challenges we faced with that storm. The travel ban is a tough decision to make — and not something you want to do often — but it really kept people safe. We had no deaths or major accidents in one of the biggest storms to ever hit Massachusetts. To me, that’s the ultimate proof that we made the right call to close the T and have the travel ban.
We all know that we have an aging MBTA infrastructure, but the storm really showed us — or showed me — that we need some strategies for investing even in the parts of the system that we’re going to actually replace over time.
My preference would be that when we have a storm, to say to people, “Leave your cars at home and take the T,” and we can’t do that if we have to close the T. We need a transit system that can work under stress
even as we reinvest and rebuild it.
What do you feel are the three biggest transportation problems facing Massachusetts?
One is deferred maintenance. We have not invested in the system that we have and that’s just as true of roads and bridges as it is of trains and transit assets. It’s not a sexy thing to do, especially when resources are limited.
Another big challenge is aligning how we plan for and invest in transportation with the broader needs of the state and its cities and towns. Transportation is really a tool for achieving other objectives, like a prosperous economy, thriving cities and towns, environmental susceptibility. The transportation agency needs to be working much more closely with the rest of state government and cities and towns to really understand what their needs are so that, as we plan and invest, we are investing in the overall priorities for the Commonwealth.
The third big challenge is learning how to say no. We can’t actually do everything for everywhere with the resources that we have. And the historic pattern, not just with Massachusetts, but across the country, has been you just keep leaving projects on wish lists and telling people you’ll get to them.
It’s a tough thing to do. It needs to be done in a very data-driven way with a lot of input from those who are affected, but if we don’t do it, we’re just kidding ourselves that we’re ever going to have the resources to do all the things that people would like us to do.
Which cities are innovative in their transportation and which would you like to see Boston emulate?
I think it would come as a surprise to some people, but places like Utah have done an extraordinary job of having the public conversation about how transportation investments and options can be used to create the kind of place that people want to live and do business in.
In the Salt Lake area, with a visioning process called Envision Utah, they made a decision to put a lot of money in transit options that would have made a lot of people say, “Really? People in Utah are going to use transit?” But it’s been wildly successful.
The Denver area has been implementing a huge transit investment, and one of the things that I think is a model for us is that when the decision was made to go ahead and raise the revenue to build the system, they had the agreement of every single mayor and chief elected official in the region, Republicans and Democrats alike. I think one of the things that Massachusetts doesn’t do as well as other places is really put local elected officials in the center of how they think about transportation.
You’ve supported additional transit spending, while the governor has not (Baker opposed an automatic gas tax increase for additional transportation dollars). What will it be like working with somebody with different views?
If there is going to be any more revenue in the future, we are going to have to earn the right to ask for it. The Legislature gave us a substantial amount of new revenue in 2013 — not as much as was asked for, but a substantial amount. The voters have spoken on the gas tax, and our job now is to take the resources we have and spend them as well as possible.
How do you feel like you and Governor Baker are similar on the subject of transportation?
The first time I sat down to have a conversation with the governor-elect, I truly walked into the room having no idea whether he and I would have any common ground. And I walked out of the room an hour later thinking, “I want to be the transportation secretary for this man.”
I think we actually think very similarly about transportation, which is that it is one of the most powerful levers that government can use to keep the Commonwealth prosperous and improve quality of life for its residents.