Steady stream of studies fuel transportation debates
Summer must really be over, because the transportation world seems to be back to work.
No fewer than three big studies on transportation issues in Massachusetts were released this week:
► The right-leaning Pioneer Institute, rarely an advocate for public transit expansion, did just that — for ferries. State officials should add more MBTA ferry service, Pioneer said, contending that ferries offer good bang for the buck, from low capital costs, reliable performance, and higher fares that passengers seem willing to pay.
► The state Senate published findings from public forums that members held across the state that include wide support for prioritizing transportation improvements, with many respondents favoring the use of broad-based taxes over fees such as tolls and fares.
► And the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the state needs to have a better plan to confront challenges, including from climate changes and the loss of gas tax money as more vehicles become electric-powered.
Studies sometimes have a habit of sitting around until they get shelved. But these three could have an impact. The Pioneer findings, for example, could factor into the state’s ongoing review of additional ferry routes along the coast, while private entities are also planning ferry service around Boston Harbor.
The Senate findings could make their way into new legislation filed this session, said Peter Wilson, a spokesman for Senate President Stan Rosenberg. And in response to the Taxpayers Foundation report, the Baker administration this week said it would form a commission to study funding and infrastructure challenges.
Experts are quick to rattle off the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles — from cutting down on traffic and auto crashes, to spawning a multibillion dollar industry. One you don’t hear much about: an opportunity for state revenue.
But as driverless cars are tested and deployed in Massachusetts, a key lawmaker thinks the state should stick its toe into the data-licensing business. State Representative William Straus, who co-chairs the Legislature’s transportation committee, wants the state to collect data about Massachusetts roads from the companies, package it, and put it out for sale.
Preparing the roadways for driverless cars, he argues, could cost money, for electric vehicle charging stations or public WiFi networks, Straus argued, and officials will need a way to pay for it.
“If the transportation landscape is the public’s responsibility, then something in the way of revenue has to be considered. And I see the data as one potential place for that,” Straus said.
So who’s the buyer? Other driverless car companies, for one, though Straus said other industries could also be interested in knowing “which are the most traveled roadways, what the quickest routes are, where the landmarks are,” and other helpful geographical information.
Straus said he envisioned a system where data about the roads could be collected while scrubbing it of trade information owned by the carmaker. Even without selling it, he said, the state should collect information from companies to better understand the roadways.
So far, two self-driving companies have started testing vehicles in the city of Boston. (Individual drivers are also already using limited driverless systems on the state’s highways, such as in Tesla cars.)
Boston officials are not collecting data from the testing companies, but the companies are required to report accidents and detail the challenges they’ve faced in a quarterly report.
Going beyond that may be a tough sell for the industry. Uber, for one, has typically been hesitant about sharing route data and other information even for its normal ride-hail functions, never mind the high-end driverless technology it is testing in other states.
Chan Lieu, a legal advisor for a coalition of automakers and tech companies involved in self-driving vehicle research, said members are open to sharing information about crashes, but might be hesitant about giving up more detailed information because it could reveal trade secrets, such as how their sensors work.
NuTonomy Inc. and Optimus Ride, two local self-driving companies testing in Boston, did not respond to requests for comment.