The four governors gathering for a transportation summit in Boston on Tuesday need to focus on creating a regional rail system rather than squandering millions of dollars widening highways, former governor Michael Dukakis told the Globe on Monday.
Governor Charlie Baker is hosting the National Governors Association infrastructure summit, which will include Democratic Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Republican New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the NGA chair.
Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee who is now a Northeastern University political science professor, said the governors should heed the message he delivered during a speech in April to Grow Smart RI in Providence.
“The only way to solve this congestion problem is to have a first-class regional rail system not only for Massachusetts but for all of New England, with the six governors deeply and actively involved,” he said. “It would take 60,000 to 70,000 cars off the road every day.”
Earlier this month, the Baker administration acknowledged that the Boston area’s traffic congestion has reached a “tipping point” and signaled support for new tools to address it, including allowing commuters to pay to bypass gridlock and reserving bus lanes on highways.
But Dukakis said, “We reached the tipping point five years ago. Anybody would see this coming.” And, he said, “Zipper lanes on the highway won’t do it — you can’t solve this by fooling around with the highway.”
Dukakis recalled that he and his wife, Kitty, took a trip recently and hit a ton of traffic despite a new lane added to Route 128. “Look, highways won’t do it, can’t do it,” he said.
Earlier this year, Rhode Island lawmakers approved borrowing $200 million to rebuild and widen Interstate 95 North through downtown Providence, but Dukakis predicted the widened highway would soon be clogged with traffic.
Dukakis said that if he were Raimondo, “I would do everything I could to be a New England leader on this rail system thing.” Referring to Baker, he said, “If our guy isn’t going to take leadership, she and other folks should.”
A regional rail system would benefit Rhode Island, Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and other parts of New England, Dukakis said. He reiterated his support for a rail link between North and South stations in Boston, saying, “If you are going to solve this problem, you need a vision and a plan connecting the two stations.”
Rhode Island and Massachusetts officials have been talking about ways to improve rail service on the Providence-to-Boston line — including proposals to replace the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s old diesel trains with more reliable electric trains on tracks that already have the advantage of being electrified.
“They’re already electrified, so it shouldn’t take a hell of a lot,” Dukakis said.
He also talked about the sky-high price of housing in the Boston area, recalling that he and his wife bought their house for $25,000 in 1971 in Brookline, Mass. “Keep in mind this is half a house,” he said of the brick duplex. “Guess what it’s assessed at today — $1.5 million, and that’s probably undervalued.”
A first-class rail system would allow people who can’t afford those kinds of housing prices to commute to Boston from places such as Rhode Island, Dukakis said.
In response to Dukakis’ comments, Baker’s office issued a statement saying, “The Baker-Polito administration has proposed an $18 billion transportation bond bill to increase capacity on the MBTA, accelerate project delivery, improve the condition of roads and bridges, and help mitigate traffic congestion and looks forward to working with the legislature to advance these critical investments in the Commonwealth’s transportation system.”
On Tuesday morning, Hogan will kick off the summit by outlining his initiative, “Infrastructure: Foundation for Success.” He and the other governors are expected to participate in two sessions on traffic congestion relief held at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.