Transit funding for Massachusetts (and how to spend it)

Sorry folks, it’s going to be another long rant about public transportation in Massachusetts. I know this isn’t exactly what you signed up for, but it’s what you’re going to get until I manage to write something else.

As I write this, we just had our 2018 primary elections in Massachusetts. While the major national buzz is over progressive Democrat and former Somerville mayor Mike Capuano’s defeat by progressive Democrat and Boston city councilor Ayanna Pressley in the 7th congressional district, I live in the 5th district, which stretches from Southborough to my west all the way to Winthrop on the coast just north of Boston — and my congresswoman, Katherine Clark, was unopposed. (There was apparently a Republican contest, but barring some unforeseen turn of events, the GOP nominee will get soundly crushed by Clark.) But we also had primaries for various state constitutional offices, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general (uncontested), auditor (uncontested), and secretary of state (won by the long-time incumbent, Bill Galvin, over challenger Josh Zakim, after whose father, Lenny Zakim, the I-93 bridge over Boston Harbor is named). There were no really compelling races in my precinct, and other than the Middlesex County district attorney, all were uncontested. However, several important state legislators lost their primaries to younger, more progressive challengers — including a number of close lieutenants of centrist house speaker Bob DeLeo. It’s important for outsiders to understand that, however much Massachusetts is seen as a liberal bastion, one-party rule has meant that there are a lot of conservative (or at least anti-progress) Democrats in the state legislature, and a lot of incumbent-protection gerrymanders that keep them in office even as the complection of the state becomes more open and progressive.

When I first started hearing about the governor’s race, back in the spring of this year, I checked out the candidates’ web sites to see what their transportation plans looked like. One of the candidates, Bob Massie, had a detailed plan and supported many of the initiatives I’ve loudly supported in this space over the past few years. The other candidate (of those who made it through to the primary), former Deval Patrick cabinet secretary Jay Gonzalez, seemed like a decent person but he didn’t have a transportation plan to speak of, just a paragraph or two of platitudes. So I supported Massie, contributed to his campaign, and voted for him in the primary. Massie was resoundingly defeated by Gonzalez, who wrapped up endorsements from nearly all of the major media and political leaders. So the general election will pit two former insurance executives, Charlie Baker (whose main accomplishments after nearly four years in office include little more than taking credit for projects that were already in procurement when he took office) and Gonzalez. I will of course be voting for Gonzalez, and in all honesty I haven’t gone back to see if he has bothered to flesh out his transportation policy in any meaningful way. But after the election, I started thinking a bit more about what my priorities would be, and how I would like to see them funded.

Both of the Democrats running for governor had endorsed the so-called “millionaire’s tax”, a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to impose a higher tax on very-high-income individuals and use the proceeds for education and transportation. The proposed tax would have brought in something like a billion dollars a year, and was showing quite well in early opinion polling. Unfortunately, the Supreme Judicial Court decided that a single ballot question could not both impose a tax and restrict how the legislature could spend it, and so the “millionaire’s tax” will not appear on our ballots this November. If Gonzalez can actually beat Baker (who has irrationally high approval ratings among Massachusetts Democrats), perhaps helped by those selfsame demographic changes that did in Capuano and other seemingly popular incumbents, then there’s a decent chance that he will have a more progressive caucus to work with in the General Court, one that’s less dependent on, and less willing to be strong-armed by, Speaker DeLeo. And that, in turn, might well mean that for the first time in a decade we could see serious consideration of increased revenues.

The mantra among public transportation advocates is “organization before electronics before concrete” — that is to say, fix organizational problems (unattractive schedules, bad workplace cultures, inadequate and underfunded maintenance, bad fare collection systems and unjust fare structures, contractor featherbedding and excessive engineering costs) before investing in new equipment, and improve equipment (like adding transit signal priority on bus corridors, or electrifying trains) before constructing major new facilities like tunnels and tramways. This makes a certain amount of sense, because without controlling construction costs you’ll waste 9 dollars out of 10 on anything you build, and in most cases you shouldn’t plan on building something unless you’ve already squeezed as much operational efficiency out of the existing infrastructure as you can. However, sometimes you need to proceed down all three tracks at the same time — as in TransitMatters’ Regional Rail proposal, high-level platforms at all stations (concrete) enable electrification of the entire commuter rail network (electronics) which enables fast, reliable, and frequent service and allows obsolete, unreliable equipment to be replaced with modern equipment rather than buying more obsolete equipment to continue to run an obsolete service. Fare integration makes the Regional Rail service more attractive to off-peak riders, which helps the farebox recovery and helps eliminate split shifts for train crews (because more trains are in service during the middle of the day) and allows reduction in duplicative bus services; fare integration and reform provides equity to marginalized communities and allows staff to be redeployed in more useful job functions.

One thing is for certain: engineering services and construction costs at the MBTA are far out of line with our global peers, even if you exclude fast-growing low-wage countries like Brazil, China, and India. Even compared to other parts of the US or Canada, our costs are out of whack and our time-to-build is far beyond what it should be. (Surely you’ve seen the viral animation of the growth of Shanghai’s, or Beijing’s, or Wuhan’s, or Dubai’s metro system over the past two decades — although those are much larger and faster-growing cities than Boston, it’s hard not to look at one of those and wish we could actually build the services we desperately needed a decade ago.) Charlie Baker touts the cancellation and redesign of the Green Line Extension, but at a cost of $156 million per kilometer ($78 million per track-kilometer) it’s an order of magnitude more expensive than light-rail construction in any old, dense, highly unionized European city — and that’s something that needs to be fixed, even if it means potentially forgoing federal transit funding (which is looking less and less reliable anyway) and getting European firms and equipment manufacturers to bid without having to pay the “buy America” tax. And it means getting serious with the construction unions about featherbedding — we should be able to commit to providing more than full employment for the unions’ memberships without paying for make-work, and without compromising safety. This probably also means letting more systemwide packages for design and engineering work: rather than having a separate architectural firm bid on each new station or platform or substation, a single designer should be tasked with generating a standard design that can be applied everywhere, or nearly everywhere.

One other high-level issue that I need to bring up is regional equity. This is a big bugbear for politicians, especially those from Western Massachusetts, whose constituents perceive (wrongly) that all “their” tax money is being funneled to Boston and none of it benefits them. (The opposite is true: the rich communities of Eastern Mass. subsidize poor and rural communities West of Worcester.) The Census Bureau’s “vintage 2017” population estimates are out now, and that gives us some numbers that we can at least think about. The seven counties that receive at least MBTA commuter rail service (Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester) account for 84.4% of the state’s population; the remaining population, 15.6%, is split between the Cape and Islands (Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket) and Western Mass. (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire). So if any new revenue is brought in, it would make it more politically palatable if the non-metropolitan Boston regions received at least a proportionate share of the expenditures.

OK, I’ve said a lot now in the abstract, let’s get a bit more concrete (no pun intended). Right now, the motor fuel tax in Massachusetts is 24.5¢ per gallon, the second-lowest in New England after New Hampshire, which brings in an annual revenue of $766 million. Gas prices now are still quite low compared to their high point before the 2008 financial crisis (about $3/gal versus nearly $4/gal back then). While it’s quite disappointing that we did not take bolder action back when gas was much cheaper (under $2/gallon for much of 2009), there’s still plenty of room to increase the gas tax. This doesn’t work forever — increased taxes will decrease consumption at the margins, and if the plan to improve public transportation is successful, people will drive less because they don’t need to drive as much, not to mention electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient conventional vehicles — so this has to be seen as an effectively temporary measure, at least in terms of the buying power of the revenue it brings in, until we can figure out a longer-term financing mechanism such as a VMT tax. That said, I propose that Massachusetts should double the gas tax, to 49¢/gal, which would make it the second-highest in the country (only below Washington State). As of right now, gas in my neighborhood is selling for $2.89/gallon; in Cambridge where I work it’s about $3.05/gallon — an additional twenty-five cents is noticeable, but livable, about three dollars extra a tank if you don’t drive a truck or full-size SUV. All of the increase would be earmarked for transportation, with no diversion of existing budget authority to other purposes, so it would truly be an increase in funding for transportation. (At least until the out years, after the maintenance backlog has been wound down and new services are operating regularly, assuming there’s even money left over after fuel consumption drops significantly.)

Now, how should this money be allocated? First off, I would take 2.5¢ off the top (that’s about 10% of the new revenue, or $76 million) for statewide transportation initiatives that don’t easily fit in the remit of a transit agency, like freight rail, intercity passenger service, and active transportation (cycling and pedestrian infrastructure improvements). In some cases, as with grade-crossing elimination, sidewalk and bike path construction, there will be side benefits to drivers, and that’s OK. (The principal benefit that drivers should get from the whole program, of course, is less congestion, by making alternative modes a more affordable and attractive option for many.)

What about the remaining nearly 90%? Here is where I would look at those population figures again. Out of the remaining $687 million, reserve 15.6% ($107 million) for non-MBTA counties, and divide it up among the RTAs serving those counties according to population served, as a dedicated funding source not subject to annual appropriation. (If there are still any municipally-operated transit systems in those counties that haven’t been absorbed into an RTA, treat them on an equal basis to the RTAs.) In exchange for this increased funding, the RTAs would have to commit to a plan that provides more frequent, reliable service to important population and job centers in their districts, after first eliminating any maintenance backlogs.

That leaves $580 million for the part of the state that receives at least some MBTA service. I would split this roughly in half, with 45% ($265 million) specifically dedicated to commuter rail improvements with a ten-year timeline to implement the full Regional Rail plan, including full high platforms, full electrification, signal and track upgrades, and grade-crossing elimination (adopted as an explicit objective by the legislature). The remaining 55% ($316 million) would go to the RTAs on the same population-based formula as the rest of the state — of which the MBTA will receive the largest share since it serves the largest population, but the “gateway city” RTAs would get significant amounts of additional funding as well. The RTA funding should come with the additional string attached that they must make corresponding improvements in service at the rail stations that will receive dramatically better service, with a stated goal and performance penalties for transit mode share for passengers connecting to and from Regional Rail.

(Aside: as a part of including Bristol County in this, legislators will probably demand full funding of South Coast Rail. This is a bad idea, but if built to Regional Rail standards with a non-stupid alignment should not significantly impede progress on the overall program, and if better cost control is achieved might not even be so horribly expensive. Ideally any formal support for SCR should be conditioned on cost control to modern European subsidy levels.)

So that’s one part of the revenue picture. I would also have the legislature authorize a congestion charging district, encompassing (at least parts of) Boston, Cambridge, Somverville, Medford, Everett, Chelsea, Revere, and Brookline, potentially including Quincy, Newton, Watertown, and other bordering communities. The revenue (between $1 and $10 per day depending on type and registered address of vehicle) would be split between the cities and the MBTA, and MassDOT would be authorized to collect the charge via its existing toll system and sufficient additional locations throughout the congestion zone to ensure at least 85% compliance. Transportation network companies and cabs would be required to pass on the charge on a per-trip basis and provide a sufficient fraction of trip logs to the state auditor to verify compliance. I don’t actually know how much revenue this would collect, but I would leave the municipalities free to spend their half of the revenue on whatever projects they wish, even if they are not transportation-related, as the congestion charge is really compensation for the disamenity of traffic on city streets and the air pollution that results (particularly particulate matter from tires and brakes, which is worse in stop-and-go traffic than free-flowing highway speeds).

Ok, we’re at word 2,345 now, and you’re probably wondering what I think this money should be spent on (besides the obvious, public transportation). Regional Rail is of course the big one, but it doesn’t even get half the revenue in this proposal. Many of the things that I care most directly about are either necessary for or a valuable adjunct to Regional Rail, whether it’s grade-crossing elimination here in Framingham (the existing grade crossings put a severe limit on the frequency of trains that can be accommodated on the Framingham/Worcester Line), or better RTA bus service to get discretionary passengers to and from the train station. Last weekend I started making a “crayon” in Google My Maps which shows a number of the other ideas that I have (or that I have stolen from other more connected transit fans) [view map]. Unfortunately, Google My Maps doesn’t really allow me to identify which services I would prioritize and which I think are more speculative, so I’ll give a rundown of what I propose beyond Regional Rail (to complete all of which would require substantially more funding than I’ve proposed here).

  1. Obviously, state of good repair comes first.
  2. Complete the Green Line Extension all the way to Mystic Valley Parkway, as was originally planned. This is just a no-brainer. Extending it further to West Medford is quite a bit more challenging but would be a stretch goal on this program (I haven’t drawn it on the map).
  3. Orange Line and Green Line extensions to Needham Junction. Once we’re committed to Regional Rail, the Needham Line becomes something of an anomaly. Bostonians in Roslindale and West Roxbury have been demanding better service (and fewer buses clogging Washington Street) for some time, and the Orange Line is Right There; extending the Orange Line to West Roxbury involves essentially the same work as the Regional Rail upgrade would, except that you’d be using third-rail electrification instead of catenary. (Either way you’d have to build high platforms and double-track the line.) Doing so would orphan the rest of the Needham Branch, so it has been proposed to convert the whole line in Needham to a Green Line branch using the abandoned right-of-way from Newton Highlands, which is currently a rail-trail and might be difficult or controversial to return to rail service. Ending the new Orange Line at West Roxbury avoids double-tracking the environmentally-sensitive Charles River bridge, but my suspicion is that many Needham residents would be better served by faster and more direct Orange Line service than by Green Line service via the Highland Branch. So my map shows a compromise, with probably the most politically difficult of all routings, sending both Orange Line and Green Line to Needham Junction, giving most riders a choice of which line they prefer. I add new Orange Line stations, above and beyond the existing Needham Branch stations, at VFW Parkway (serving Millennium Park, West Roxbury Academy and Catholic Memorial) and Greendale Avenue; new Green Line stations are at High Rock (the south end of the Needham Junction wye, beyond which tracks have been lifted), Gould Street (at the current WCVB studios, car wash, and Muzi Ford, all of which might be candidates for redevelopment), Oak Street in Newton Upper Falls, and Columbia Avenue in Newton Highlands (at the new “Avalon” apartment complex).
  4. Blue Line extension to Inman Square. This is inspired by Ari Ofsevit’s proposal to extend the Blue Line past Charles/MGH — the which has been promised for decades — to MIT’s redevelopment of the current Volpe Transportation Building on Broadway in Cambridge. At Volpe you’d have a connection to the Red Line at Kendall, but where should the line go from there? Inman Square in Cambridge is pretty much equidistant from Union Square Somerville (one branch of the GLX) and Central Square on the Red Line, a bit farther away from Harvard and Kendall, and in a very densely populated area that is only served by buses at the moment. Once you take the turn onto Hampshire Street, Inman is a straight shot for a cut-and-cover tunnel, and in fact you can continue straight nearly all the way to Porter if you want (I’m uncertain about the value of that option, but I’ve drawn it as a future extension). This becomes important for connecting to the Yellow Line.
  5. Washington Street and Mass. Ave. tramways. When the Washington Street Elevated was demolished in 1987, the residents were promised something “better than a bus” as a replacement service. So far, all they have is buses — fancy buses, in some places, but still buses. I propose to give them a tramway, reusing the old Tremont Street Subway branch to the Pleasant Street portal, and then running south along Washington St. and/or Shawmut Ave. (there are some issues with one-ways here that would have to be straightened out) to Dudley, with future tramways serving Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of Hyde Park and Roslindale. IN the other direction, Mass. Ave. is the majority of the route of the MBTA’s single busiest bus line, the #1 bus, which serves 13,000 passengers per day, plus numerous private shuttles operated by transportation management associations, the Longwood Medical Area shared services corporation, and multiple universities. The 1 bus also used to be a tram line, albeit one without a dedicated reservation. I propose to construct a Mass. Ave. tramway that runs from Central Square in a dedicated reservation (eliminating street parking as necessary in narrower segments) all the way to Southampton Street, then continuing through South Boston via Andrew Square and ending at City Point. The tramway should be constructed with paved tracks, to allow for buses as well as trams; passengers who currently take the #1 to or from Dudley would be able to transfer to the Washington St. tram, cutting off the current loop past Boston Medical Center, and both would run at sufficient frequency to make the transfer penalty relatively small. (Passengers for Longwood could transfer at Symphony.)
  6. Huntington Avenue subway extension. I propose a short extension of the Huntington Ave. subway from Northeastern to Brigham Circle, which is mostly free to construct with the Yellow Line running parallel there.
  7. Yellow Line: a circumferential route connecting Saugus to South Boston. There isn’t a huge demand for a train from Saugus to South Boston, admittedly, but my Yellow Line is a single route that combines many people’s overlapping wishlists for better connectivity in the Boston area. Like Roxbury, Everett used to have a section of the Main Line Elevated (today’s Orange Line); when the Haymarket-North extension was built in the 1970s, the El in Everett was torn down, and that city was left with buses and much worse access to downtown Boston. It’s been proposed that a branch off the Orange Line be built from Sullivan Square through Everett that would allow many of those bus routes to be restructured or cut and give Everett residents a one-seat ride again. My first segment of the Yellow Line would fit that bill, with two stops on Broadway, then running under Lynn St. to Eastern Avenue (another stop) before following the old railroad right-of-way to downtown Saugus (stops at Salem St., School St., and Central St. But rather than a branch of the Orange Line, I think the Yellow Line is more useful if it becomes a true circumferential line, enabling travelers who currently want to go from Somerville to Longwood, or from Charlestown to Cambridge, or from Allston to Everett, to do so without going through the bottleneck in central Boston. Much of the line is intended to replace the #66 bus, which also has 13,000 passengers per day, as well as some of the travel demand on the 1, 47, 64, 70, 86, 91, CT2, CT3, and other buses currently radiating out of Cambridge Red Line stops. South and west of Sullivan Square, my Yellow Line stops at Union Square Somerville (interchange with the Green Line), Inman Square (interchange with the Blue Line), Central Square (interchange with the Red Line), Putnam Ave./Memorial Drive (dense residential neighborhood), Harvard Science Center, West Station (interchange with Regional Rail), eiher Union Square Allston or Commonwealth Ave. and Babcock St., Coolidge Corner (interchange with Green Line “C” branch), Brookline Ave. (near interchange with Green Line “D” branch), Huntington Ave. (interchange with Green Line “E” branch), Ruggles (interchange with Orange Line again), Washington St. (interchange with Washington St. tramway or short walk to Dudley), Boston Medical Center/Mass. Ave., Broadway (interchange with Red Line again), and then eventually via track 61 (or possibly under D St.) to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Although the alignment is somewhat different, this is essentially what was being proposed as the “rainbow line” when I first moved to Boston in the 1990s, before being sandbagged by the state and partially “implemented” as the CT1/2/3 bus routes.
  8. The final and most speculative proposal is a series of tunnels and a long bypass track that would give a straight, high-speed route to Worcester, mainly following the Massachusetts Turnpike from Newton to Westborough, and cutting off the big curve around the south end of Lake Quinsigamond. I propose two new stations on this line, one at Framingham Technology Park on the Framingham/Southborough line, and one at Cochituate in Wayland where the line crosses Route 27 just west of Lake Cochituate State Park. The routing I’ve drawn for these is approximate at best. My assumption is that construction of a tunnel under the Turnpike (which was built on top of the original four-track main line) would involve completely replacing the existing two-track main line and all stations, and it’s probably 20 or 30 years out at best — unless the state decides to get serious about a high-speed intercity route from Boston to Springfield, which would not be compatible with Regional Rail on a two-track line. This would also make Worcester express service both useful (in terms of reduced travel time) and feasible on the high-frequency Regional Rail model.

Nearly 4000 words, and I’m up way too late, so I’m afraid that’s all the blather I have time to write this time.

This entry was posted in Transportation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.