Past generations in Greater Boston knew it was their duty to improve the landscape — to build parks and seawalls, subways and bridges — for the benefit of all future residents. In 2018, we can still dream up useful new pieces of civic hardware, such as the cool new footbridge now proposed for the Mystic River between Somerville and Everett.
Today, however, we keep assuming that somebody else, anybody else, should pick up the tab.
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation has been studying the Mystic River footbridge, one configuration of which would cost $23 million; a link to an MBTA station would add perhaps $10 million more. Beyond connecting Somerville’s Assembly Square development with the Wynn Resorts casino now under construction in Everett, the bridge would make the network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways along the Mystic far more useful for pedestrians and bike commuters in surrounding communities. But as the Globe’s Adam Vaccaro reported this past week, the department won’t push the project forward without a funding source, so it’s casting about for outside money.
Even as everyone pays lip service to the need for carbon-free transportation — and even as we enjoy the fruits of past investments on the Charles River Esplanade and elsewhere — we’re treating tomorrow’s green infrastructure like an optional frill, to be funded by voluntary contributions from rich abutters.
At least the Mystic River site has such abutters. And the state shouldn’t turn up its nose at their money. If Wynn Resorts can even contemplate putting a $28 million sculpture of Popeye in the lobby of its casino, it can afford to pitch in for a footbridge that will help bring customers to the front door. (To its credit, the company is already contributing to the planning of the project and signaled a willingness to do much more.)
Likewise, it’s fair, on some cosmic level, that Harvard will be kicking in most of the cost of a future West Station, since the university’s vast Allston land holdings gain value from better transit access. It was also fair, when the planned Green Line extension nearly succumbed to a spiraling price tag, that local governments in Cambridge and Somerville anted up to save the project. In this same spirit, the notion of “value capture” — that is, getting the most conspicuous beneficiaries of a project to pay for it — is on the verge of becoming the nation’s preferred way of paying for certain transportation work; President Trump’s infrastructure plan more or less demands it for transit projects.
Yet the state and local governments in Massachusetts have yet to master the art of the tactful stickup. There’s no set way of determining how much money any one party should kick in for a new train station or bridge. Plus, the Commonwealth’s ancient system of local rule isn’t structured to collect money for regionwide projects. Given how proximity to subway stops adds to property values, I’ve argued that all property owners near major MBTA lines should pay a modest assessment, but there’s currently no regional taxing district capable of levying it. Too bad, because more predictable streams of revenue make for better planning.
By funding public improvements with ad hoc infusions of private funds, government agencies give up some control over what gets built where. The new transit stops near Assembly Square and the New Balance complex in Brighton arose not through extensive public planning, but because property developers helped pay for them. The kinda-sorta-public spaces built with private money in Boston’s Seaport are programmed and maintained at the convenience of their owners; that’s why there’s an appetite for a straight-up public park on Boston’s Dry Dock No. 4.
Meanwhile, worthy public improvements that lack obvious private sponsors inevitably languish. The lovely and useful North Bank pedestrian and bike bridge between Cambridge and Charlestown was a castoff from the Big Dig era, and it exists now only because the 2009 stimulus bill brought an unexpected influx of federal money. If we really mean to promote more walking and cycling, a pennies-from-heaven funding strategy isn’t the way to make that happen.
Treating such infrastructure as afterthought, financially and otherwise, also creates headaches over time. This month, the years-long renovation of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, built in a year or two more than a century ago, became Trump’s Exhibit A for endless infrastructure delays. A key problem, though, was that the state belatedly recognized the need to accommodate a future bike and pedestrian underpass. Had we been planning and funding better bike and pedestrian infrastructure all along, the Anderson repair wouldn’t have cost as much or taken as long as it did.
For state transportation planners, it’s frustrating when advocacy groups seize upon a once-in-a-decade project with an already eye-popping price tag — such as the Big Dig, the Green Line extension, or the looming Mass. Pike overhaul in Allston — as a way of funding boardwalks, linear parks, and community paths. But when that happens, it’s because time and again, we’ve neglected the demand for bike and pedestrian improvements and identified no other source of money for them.
If a casino company wants to pay for a footbridge over the Mystic River, well, great. But while depending upon the kindness of strangers can be seductive, it’s also unhealthy if it means giving up control of our own fate.