Traffic congestion has reached a ‘tipping point’ in Massachusetts, state officials say
The Baker administration on Thursday acknowledged the state’s epic traffic has reached a “tipping point” and signaled support for major new tools to combat congestion, including allowing commuters to pay to bypass gridlock and reserving bus lanes on highways.
At a news conference, Governor Charlie Baker released a long-awaited report that concluded what Boston-area commuters already know: Traffic in and around the city is bad, and getting worse.
“No one likes traffic and congestion, period, and it’s a frustrating and inconvenient reality for too many people,” he said.
The congestion report — and the fact that Baker held an event to release it — demonstrates just how much transportation has come to dominate his gubernatorial career. From the early days in 2015 when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority seized up after a series of punishing storms, to the ongoing reliability and safety concerns exposed by the Red Line derailment in June, to reports that Massachusetts has among the worst rush hour traffic in the country, Baker has been under mounting political pressure to deliver relief.
The governor recently unveiled a massive $18 billion plan to accelerate the repair of the aging transit system and expand its reach, and also offer tax credits to those who work from home. He referenced that plan frequently Thursday, while also calling for a change from “standard operating procedure.”
Chief among Baker’s ideas is allowing motorists to pay their way out of congestion by allowing them to use new, still-to-be- built toll lanes on the state’s highways.
“I do believe that this, if it can be done . . . should absolutely affect the quality of people’s commutes,” Baker said.
However, he again rejected other forms of “congestion pricing” that many transportation advocates have recommended, such as adding or increasing tolls on all drivers during rush hour to discourage travel at peak times. The governor said such a system would unfairly penalize those who have no choice but to commute during rush hour.
“Without another option, this plan would only cost money for folks who have no other options,” he said.
By contrast, an opt-in toll lane — also known as a high-occupancy toll lane, or HOT — would speed up commutes not only for those willing to pay to bypass traffic, but for those in the free lanes as well, Baker said. Over the next year, the administration will study the location and feasibility of toll lanes, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.
Though it did not list all the highways that would be considered for tolls, the administration report said the Southeast Expressway would be included in the study.
The administration also said it would “explore” with the Legislature whether to increase the fees on Uber and Lyft rides during rush hour. A recent report commissioned by Uber and Lyft found that their cars accounted for nearly 8 percent of total mileage in Suffolk County during a one-month period in 2018.
Those tolls lanes could also accommodate buses, administration officials added, which should improve commuting times for public transit riders and may even encourage others to give up their cars.
T. Donna Chen, a transportation specialist and assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said congestion pricing in various forms can be an effective tool, especially if tolls vary based on the amount of traffic on the road.
“This type of solution has worked really well to curb congestion in some of the other major cities,” she said, citing Atlanta, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
Chen said high-occupancy toll lanes are often derided as “Lexus lanes” because they favor people who can afford to pay higher tolls. But one way to make them more palatable, she said, is to use the revenue they generate to pay for mass transit options that would benefit all commuters.
Pollack also said bus travel can be improved on both state highways and local roads. For example, the MBTA has identified 14 miles of local roads where bus lanes could be added to provide quicker service to customers, Pollack said, adding the state has committed “over the next year” to examine locations where high-occupancy vehicle lanes can be added or road shoulders could be utilized.
“If we are going to encourage people to use transit buses . . . we also need to create infrastructure that supports shared travel,” she said.
Separate bus lanes are already in use on some busy area streets.
Other solutions include measures the administration has previously touted, including signals that adjust depending on traffic and redesigning local streets and intersections to improve flow.
Baker has also sketched out a way to pay for some of these measures: using the funds generated by a new fee on fuels that is part of a compact that Massachusetts and other Northeast states have formed to curb pollution from vehicles.
Some transportation advocates offered positive reviews of the proposals Baker and Pollack put forward Thursday.
Stephen Silveira, who served on several state transportation commissions under Baker and former governor Mitt Romney, said he supported the idea of opt-in toll lanes.
“If we can free up some people from traffic and get some money for our system by using that without harming everybody’s travel . . . that seems pretty wise to me,” Silveira said.
Chris Dempsey, director of the coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, said he had mixed feelings. There’s a lot to like, he said, including the emphasis on mass transit.
“We absolutely think that we are in a congestion crisis,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully this report is a turning point that allows us to focus on proven solutions.”
But he said Baker’s version of congestion pricing — the opt-in toll lanes — is the wrong approach because it involves adding new lanes to the highway.
“Even when those lanes are priced, they induce more driving, create more air pollution, and move us further away from our transportation congestion goals,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey said Baker should instead experiment with charging everyone on a toll road higher prices for driving during rush hour, which he said “would provide much more immediate relief” from congestion.
Baker said he thought most of the improvements mentioned in the report could be accomplished in three to four years, though the optional toll lanes, if approved, would take longer.
The report found that traffic congestion has worsened since 2013 and reached a point where it reduces access to jobs. And “rush hour” has expanded, with traffic building up much earlier in the day, to as early as 6 a.m. for the morning commute and 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
Constant congestion has added to the time commuters spend driving to work, but Pollack said the proposed fixes aren’t aimed as much at saving them time as they are at making each commute more predictable.
That variability — 40 minutes one day, an hour and a half the next — is the main factor that “drives people crazy,” according to the report.
For instance, the average trip from Brockton to Boston during rush hour, according to the report, took 50 minutes in 2018.
However, pretty much once a week, that same trip took just over an hour, and several times a month it took 72 minutes, according to the report.
“This is not sexy stuff, this is not silver bullet stuff,” Pollack said of the proposed solutions. “What we really concluded is, in a world as congested as our world has become, we have to do a lot of things really well every day.”