Massachusetts’ transportation bond bills: an analysis and recommendation

This month, I’ve spent rather more time than I would like to admit digging through the Massachusetts state legislature’s web site to try to figure out what the heck they have done with the transportation funding (and MBTA governance) measures they were considering before the pandemic caused everyone to suddenly go into self-preservation mode. The General Court kicked the MBTA governance can down the road by extending the current board for another year. The House-passed revenue bill has apparently gone nowhere in the Senate, so we are not, for the moment, looking at any additional revenue from the traditional state sources, although it is sorely needed. I read through both of the bills that did pass and extracted the highlights, most of which I posted on Twitter.

Since the main transportation bond bill has just gone to conference committee, I wanted to put the two bills side-by-side and come up with something that I could communicate to my legislators and to the members of the conference committee as a superior synthesis of the two bills. In general, my preference is for the Senate text, but there are some significant areas in which the House version is superior, and there are also significant issues with provisions that are common to both bills.

Executive summary

Both House and Senate bills can support a reasonable transportation capital program. In the matter of bridge, highway, and municipal roadway investments, I see no important differences between the two. While fewer earmarks would be desirable, most of the earmarks are dedicated to projects that would likely be funded through the state CIP or federal STIP anyway. As a matter of general principle, I would move funding from highways to transit, but with one exception I am not suggesting that here.

My greatest concern regards the unsystematic mish-mash of appropriations for the MBTA’s capital program, and in particular for commuter rail projects. These appropriations and earmarks should be combined into a coherent program of rail transformation, of the sort the MBTA control board approved at its November 4, 2019, meeting. Some of the common language between the two bills references obsolete technologies that should not be written into law lest MassDOT or the MBTA actually implement it.

I totaled all of the regular appropriations and earmarks in the two bills relating to commuter rail. H.4547 includes $1.01 billion in explicit funding for a range of commuter rail projects, not counting South Coast Rail or the Allston Multimodal project. S.2813, by contrast, includes only $715 million in funding for commuter-rail projects. However, even the smaller amount in the Senate bill is sufficient to implement Raiil Transformation phase 1, assuming funding is available in the next federal surface transportation bill at a better than 75% match. Below, I suggest replacement language that would significantly improve on what is there now.

General comments

  • The Senate version of section 2B, with additional grant programs and preference for municipalities that encourage transit-oriented development, is preferable to the House version.
  • In section 2E, trolleybuses should be explicitly mentioned alongside battery buses, since trolleybuses are more energy efficient and generate less pollution than battery buses.
  • I strongly approve of call-out for the Red-Blue Connector, although an explicit dollar amount ought to be attached to this project.
  • Delete the language about Red and Orange Line cars since that contract has already been executed and no cars beyond the current procurement will be purchased before 2035 at the earliest.
  • South Salem station is a necessary down payment on commuter rail transformation; I think the Senate’s earmark is a more realistic estimate of its cost.
  • The House version of section 2G is preferable, but it’s probably impractical to implement 20-minute headways on the Worcester Line within one year. Require MassDOT to consider reducing the Turnpike by one lane to reduce the size and intrusiveness of the highway structures.
  • Delete the $300mn earmark for the I-93/I-95 Canton interchange from the House bill and let that project compete for STIP funding through the usual process.
  • Don’t pay Natick to build commuter-rail parking garages; the town should find a TOD partner to build development near the stations which is compatible with the desired parking structures.
  • Include both the local/regional ballot initiatives from the Senate bill and the TIF districts from the House bill — these funding mechanisms work best for substantially different communities and can and should coexist.
  • Include Senate section 21 to decriminalize MBTA fare evasion; this is a necessary part of the T’s ongoing Fare Transformation program to convert to proof-of-payment fare collection.
  • Include the Senate language on low-income fare programs, including the earmark of TNC fees to fund it. (TNC fees should be increased.)
  • Just direct MassDOT to implement congestion pricing, as in Senate section 41, and don’t bother with the commission in section 40.
  • Drop Senate section 43 and allow Metropolitan Highway System user fees to be used to pay for the Allston Multimodal project. If need be, restrict this to the toll gantries on either side of the project limits.
  • Drop House section 30, no need for additional studies of East-West Rail.
  • My language below replaces House section 36.

Replacement text

This is relative to S.2836, and fits within the fiscal envelope of the both bills with respect to commuter rail spending, assuming all earmarks for commuter rail projects are struck and the funding reassigned to the 6622-2183 account as described below.

In s. 2E, strike text beginning “provided further” on line 190 through “passenger enhancements” on line 200, and all commuter-rail earmarks throughout the remainder of the bill. Further in s. 2E, strike all after “6622-2183” through the end of the paragraph and substitute the following text:

For the purpose of modernizing the commuter rail system, reducing greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions, improving travel times and reducing delays for commuter rail passengers, improving rolling stock reliability and utilization, supporting non-traditional commuting schedules and access to employment from environmental justice communities, and ensuring full access to commuter rail services for mobility impaired riders; provided, that funds may be expended for projects that support Phase 1 of Rail Transformation as resolved by the fiscal and management control board on November 4, 2019; provided further, that the authority shall prepare a plan describing capital investments and schedule sequencing necessary to provide bidirectional, all-day train service on all commuter rail lines at least every half hour by December 31, 2026, and identifying potential sources of additional funds including private partnerships and federal grants, such report to be submitted to the clerks of the House and the Senate by June 30, 2021; provided further, that funds may be expended for projects, including without limitation, planning, engineering and acquisition of zero emission multiple-unit commuter rail vehicles, infrastructure improvements, technology and equipment necessary to provide such service; provided further, that funds may be expended for capital costs associated with infrastructure and equipment to leverage innovative financing and partnership approaches; provided further, that funds may be used for planning and feasibility studies; provided further, that funds may be used for transportation planning, design, permitting and engineering, acquisition of rights of way and interests in land, construction and reconstruction of stations and other facilities; provided further, that funds may be used for construction, reconstruction, retrofitting, resilience, efficiency improvements and modernization of stations, platforms, signals, tracks, power and electrical systems; provided further that two new stations shall be constructed on the Newburyport/Rockport line, at Wonderland in the city of Revere and at South Salem in the city of Salem; provided furher, that the stations on the Framingham/Worcester line in Newton shall be reconstructed to have platforms serving both tracks; provided further, that the authority shall study the restoration of service to Newton Corner; provided further, that not less than $25,000,000 shall be expended on the expansion of parking facilities which are consistently full before 9 a.m., with priority to such stations on the Framingham/Worcester line; provided further, that the authority shall prioritize station and infrastructure improvements that reduce dwell times at intermediate stations and turnaround times at terminal stations, including but not limited to construction of level boarding platforms, signal system improvements, and higher speed switches; and provided further, that not less than $25,000,000 shall be expended on the design and engineering of transportation improvements along the waterfront in the South Boston section of the city of Boston taking into consideration the recommendations of the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan, as amended from time to time ………………$715,000,000

That’s it. The extra $315mn for this line item is to be taken from the other line items containing the deleted earmarks. This doesn’t touch any of the highway earmarks, but I would strike the $300mn for the I-93/I-95 Canton interchange and add that total to this line item as well, making it $1,015,000,000, which — with a potential 90% match in the next federal surface transportation bill — is sufficient to complete the full Regional Rail program, although not the North-South Rail Link.

The weeds

A comparison of S.2813 (the bond bill that passed the Senate) and H.4547 (the bond bill that passed the House) shows strong similarities but also some important differences between the chambers. I believe the similarities can be put down to the basic structure having come out of the Joint Committee on Transportation; each body then proceeded through its own Ways & Means committees and floor debate with a host of amendments. H.4547 was passed by the House on March 5; the Senate did not take up its bill until June, well into the coronavirus pandemic, and after floor debate and amendments, adopted S.2813 as a substitute amendment for H.4547 in mid-July. A conference committee was appointed by both bodies with the intent of reporting a compromise bill before the end of the current sitting, currently scheduled for next Friday, July 31. Both versions have an emergency preamble and would take effect immediately on the governor’s signature.

Some of the sections in the bills are substantive amendments to the general laws, and others are appropriations and bond authorizations. There are several distinct bond authorizations, with slightly different terms, one for each of the appropriation sections in the bill. All bonds are general obligations of the Commonwealth, unless the governor determines that they should be special obligations. The Senate version came to $16.9 billion in new bond authorizations; no such tally was present in the House bill and I did not try to total them myself.

Both versions of the bill are full of earmarks and requirements for planning exercises and reports to the legislature; the conference committee will have to reconcile these, as well as the top-line totals. I went through both bills to identify the differences between them and language that I consider to be problematic. I’m going to mostly stay away from discussion of the highway earmarks, although I believe there are far too many of them and most of those projects should be funded through the normal STIP and CIP process using the large programmatic appropriations in both bills. The transit appropriations, including elements common to both versions, are a mess.

Here’s a (mostly) section-by-section summary of the provisions in the two versions:

Section 2 is the main MassDOT Highway appropriation, $5.6bn for federal-aid highways. The House version has an additional $300mn in general spending on municipal ways; the Senate deleted this and reallocated the funds in the next section.

Section 2A is also MassDOT Highway, covering a variety of state-owned, non-federal-aid facilities; it appropriates $2.2bn (House) or $2.5bn (Senate) for non-federal-aid state roads and bridges, $350mn for the Cape Cod Canal bridge approaches (the bridges themselves are to be replaced by USACE and then turned over to the MassDOT after completion), and $100mn for non-federal pavement (basically road resurfacing). The Senate adds another $250mn for state highways and bridges, $50mn for pavement, and $7.5mn for park-and-ride facilities in Barnstable and Sandwich.

Section 2B is MassDOT Highway grants to municipalities, $220mn in the House version and $335mn in the Senate version. The Senate increases funding for the municipal small bridge program ($90mn vs. $70mn), but holds municipal pavement grants steady ($100mn) while reducing complete streets grants from $50mn to $45mn. In addition, the Senate creates several new programs, including a $50mn “bottleneck” program and a $50mn program for “transit-supportive” infrastructure, which includes municipal funding for trolleybus wiring, bus amenities, bus stop accessibility, and transit signal priority. The Senate adds a grant award preference for most of these programs to communities that encourage transit-oriented development; the compete streets grant reserves $16.5mn for low-income communities.

MY VIEW: keep the Senate version with expanded programs and TOD preferences.

Section 2C is the same in both bills, $1.25bn for state bridges. Section 2D is also the same, $790mn for MassDOT Rail and Transit; it includes $400mn for rail improvements (including the Industrial Rail Access Program), $330mn for RTA buses and facilities, and $60mn for “regional intercity bus and intermodal service”, which I guess can be interpreted pretty broadly.

Section 2E is the main MBTA laundry list, although in the bill it’s placed in the office of the Secretary of Transportation. This is where many but not all of the MBTA earmarks landed in both versionss. The total cost is $5.2bn in the House version and $5.7bn in the Senate version, with a lot of projects given the green light and only some having specific earmarks. I’m going to go through them in some detail.

First off, what the bills both have in common. The main line item is for MBTA rapid transit and bus modernization, $2.6bn in the House bill and $3.26bn in the Senate bill. It recites a whole list of purposes to which the money can be put, across the whole area of the rapid transit and bus systems, and calls out the Better Bus Project by name. The bills specifically call out bus garage modernization to service battery-electric buses, but don’t mention trolleybuses.

Both bills fund the Red-Blue Connector as well as Blue Line signal system improvements for the rest of the line, and both fund construction of a new station on the Eastern Route at Wonderland along with an enclosed pedestrian connection to the existing Wonderland station. The House bill requires renovation of Suffolk Downs station, but the Senate bill does not; also unique to the House bill is a requirement for increased service on the 714 bus (which runs from the Hingham waterfront to the very tip of Hull).

Both bills have a weird provision requiring Red and Orange Line cars currently being assembled in Springfield to be assembled in Springfield. I’m not sure what the point of this was, because this procurement is already subject to Buy America and CRRC can’t easily set up a new factory elsewhere in the US before this order is due to be finished.

The bills differ somewhat in their language regarding modernization of the commuter rail network. The general provision for “rolling stock for use on the commuter rail system that reduces the overall environmental and emissions impact of the rail network to the greatest extent possible” is the same in both bills. Both also have weird language requiring “a pilot program and related capital improvements to implement dual-mode service on the south side of the commuter rail system, with priority given to dual-mode service on the Framingham/Worcester Line”, and both have a requirement for the MBTA to consider in-state economic development when it evaluates proposals for rolling stock.

Both bills also allow “the procurement of electric multiple units, infrastructure improvements, technology and equipment necessary to support new or modified commuter rail service models, safety features and passenger enhancements; provided further, that funds may be used for construction, reconstruction, retrofitting, resilience, efficiency improvements and modernization of stations, platforms, signals, tracks, power and electrical systems”, although the text is in different places.

The House bill requires a feasibility study for “transit improvement districts”; the Senate bill simply authorizes them (in a separate section).

Now comes a big long list of earmarks, starting with the biggest-ticket item: The House bill appropriates $200mn for electrifying the Fairmount and Stoughton lines, whereas the Senate bill appropriates $200mn for electrifying the Eastern Route — but only as far as Beverly. The House also includes electrification of the Eastern Route, in a different section of their bill, only as far as Lynn, and only appropriates $150mn for it. Both bills allow, but do not require or otherwise earmark, funds to be used for EMU procurement and other facilities and equipment necessary to support “new or modified commuter rail service models”.

Other House earmarks: $100mn for Haverhill Line — and it’s not clear whether that includes the following, $50mn for Ballardvale double-tracking; $30mn for level boarding at Haverhill, Ballardvale, and Andover; and $5mn for additional train service on the line.

The Senate bill has far more earmarks, several of which are funded under a different section/bond authorization in the House bill (marked with an asterisk); italicized earmarks were included in my tally of commuter-rail earmarks:

  • $2.5mn for accessibility improvements at Beachmont
  • $25mn for a new South Salem station (*)
  • $3mn for Worcester Union Station improvements
  • $6mn for an accessible station at Ayer
  • $1.5mn for parking expansion at South Acton, Littleton, Shirley, Southboro, and Westboro stations
  • $0.6mn for accessibility improvements at the Wellesley stations
  • $1.5mn for “major improvements” at JFK, Andrew, and Broadway stations
  • $2.5mn for parking at Walpole station (*)
  • $2mn for elevators and escalators at Route 128 station
  • $4mn for high-level platforms at Waltham and Concord (*)
  • $100mn for improvements to Alewife garage and related access improvements

The second line item in section 2E funds state-of-good-repair projects for MBTA customer and maintenance facilities; the House funds it at $500mn, and the Senate at $300mn. In both bills there is language directing that SGR projects that would replace existing assets should seek to modernize them where appropriate (rather than like-for-like replacement of obsolete assets).

The third line item funds South Coast Rail, which is the feds determined was not cost-effective and chose not to fund. Both bills fund SCR at $825mn, as I believe the administration requested, and both bills cap mitigation costs at $100mn, but the Senate bill earmarks $25mn of the total to an intermodal station in downtown New Bedford (the House funds this through a separate earmark).

Both bills also fund the state share of the Green Line Extension at the full $695mn, and earmark $100mn for “GLX Phase II” — the remaining Medford extension to Mystic Valley Parkway which was left out of the federal grant agreement as a cost reduction. The T is required to complete an EIR for Phase II by the end of this year.

The next line item is “For the purpose of implementing South Station improvements”, for $400mn in both bills, but nearly the entire text is Rail Vision/Regional Rail and has nothing to do with South Station. Both bills earmark $25mn for the unrelated South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan. I have a suspicion that this is an elliptical way of referring to South Station Expansion, which is a bad project, a waste of money, and should not be funded.

Finally, there is a line item for “rail enhancement”; the House gave it $175mn and the Senate allocates $225mn. Both bills call out a variety of passenger rail projects, including expanding service to Cape Cod and in the Pioneer Valley, but the Senate specifically earmarks $50mn for East-West Rail and another $25mn for a service connecting Pittsfield to New York City. The Senate bill also calls out commuter rail service to Buzzards Bay, intercity passenger service on the PAS main line between Fitchburg and North Adams, and service between Pittsfield and Albany. The Senate graciously allows MassDOT to “consider” its own East-West Rail report in building East-West.

MY VIEW: This section is a mess. See my amendment above.

Section 2F funds MassDOT Aeronautics airport improvements at $89mn. Nobody cares about MassDOT Aeronautics (the only important airports belong to Massport), so this line item contains no earmarks and nobody even tried to amend it on the floor of the senate.

Section 2G is for MassDOT central activities, including statewide planning programs and the Allston Multimodal project. Both bills allocate $475mn for all-modes planning, asset management, and compliance activities, and earmark up to $100mn to implement the state bike and ped plan. Both bills allocate $250mn to the Allston project, but differ significantly in the strings attached:

  • The Senate requires a cost-benefit analysis on “throat” alternatives, including a no-build option, as well as “a detailed description of … mitigation measures, including … efforts to maximize commuter rail travel, including rail and signal improvements, fare strategies, third track options, raised platforms and parking”. Not less than $50mn is allocated for a combination of mitigation measures and transportation demand management.
  • The House requires early construction and opening of West Station — “20 minute peak headway commuter rail service” and local bus connections within 1 year from *start* of construction — a buffer park along the south edge of the project, a bike and ped bridge connecting the Paul Dudley White path to Agganis Way, and various improvements to the Grand Junction Path in Cambridge and Somerville. The department must submit a plan for Worcester Line improvements including third track, level boarding, additional peak trains, etc., by the end of FY21. I wasn’t sure if the language also requires MassDOT to build a new bike/ped bridge to connect the PDW with the Cambridge-side Grand Junction Path, parallel to the existing Grand Junction railroad bridge.

MY VIEW: the House version of the language is better, but the bill ought to require MassDOT to consider lane reductions on the Turnpike and on Soldiers Field Road to reduce the impact of the highway structures on the parkland and the river.

Section 2H appropriates $50m for IT, identical language in both bills.

Section 2I is a dumping ground, technically going to the Secretary of Transportation’s office. I don’t know why all this crap is here rather than in the other sections where it would seem to be more at home, but that’s how they did it. The House bill appropriates $1.86bn in total, and the Senate version is much cleaner at only $675mn. Some of the highlights and big-ticket items:

In the House bill:

  • $25mn in grants to TMAs
  • $100mn in municipal grants for bus priority, trolleybus wiring, and bus amenities (funded at $50mn by the Senate bill under section 2B with some additional conditions)
  • $100mn to improve access to transit stations and bus stops, split 50-50 between grants to municipalities and state projects
  • $0.5mn to study accessibility improvements at Lincoln station
  • $1.8mn for quiet zones on South Coast Rail
  • $4mn for improvements to roadways and parking at Sharon station
  • $2mn for repairs and ADA platforms at Roslindale Village station
  • $2.5mn for commuter parking and traffic improvements at Walpole
  • $300mn for the I-95/I-93 (Route 128) interchange in Canton
  • $0.5mn for infrared heaters on the platforms of the Stoughton Branch
  • $0.5mn for satellite parking and shuttle buses along the Fitchburg Line east of I-495
  • $30mn for Hynes station accessibility
  • $3mn to replace the crash-damaged Boden Lane bridge over the Worcester Line in Natick
  • $15mn to the town of Natick to build parking garages at commuter rail stations
  • $5mn for a competitive matching grant program for RTA and TMA “commuter services linking to the MBTA”
  • $10mn for a Blue Hill Ave. BRT (28X redux) using zero-emission vehicles
  • $4mn for “improvements” at West Medford station
  • $3mn for a Lynn commuter ferry
  • $150mn for electrification of the Eastern Route as far as Lynn
  • $7mn for superstructure replacement of the St. Mary’s St. bridge over the Turnpike and Worcester Line in Brookline
  • $67mn for Newton commuter rail station replacement
  • $5mn for Framingham commuter rail parking
  • $2mn for intersection improvements near Framingham station
  • $10mn for all-day service on commuter rail
  • $25mn for an intermodal station in New Bedford (the Senate bill funds this in section 2E)
  • $50mn for unspecified investments on the Worcester Line
  • $4mn for bus access and congestion reduction at Alewife station
  • $10mn for a new South Salem station (funded by the Senate in s. 2E)
  • $4mn for high-level platforms at Waltham and Concord stations
  • $100mn for Alewife garage reconstruction and traffic improvements
  • $60mn for high-level platforms on the Franklin Line
  • $2mn to expand parking at Orient Heights
  • $3mn to study restoration of light rail service to Roxbury, including reopening Tremont St. tunnel, with service alternatives to replace the SL4/5 to Nubian Sq. and the 28 from Nubian to Mattapan
  • $5mn for Silver Line Washington St. improvements including shelters and TSP
  • (unfunded): MBTA to study Red Line extension to Arlington

In the Senate bill:

  • $60mn for double-tracking Ballardvale (funded by the House in s. 2E)
  • $25mn for level boarding at Haverhill (funded by the House in s. 2E)
  • $2.5mn for ferry service in Quincy
  • $2.5mn for parking improvements at Ashland station
  • $8mn to buy, build, or rehab a downtown parking garage in Framingham

In both bills:

  • $30mn for landside ferry facilities and boat acquisition
  • $108mn for a relocation of the westbound lanes of Storrow Drive
  • $20mn for a PPP to upgrade freight rail tracks for heavy loads
  • $0.4mn (House) or $0.5mn (Senate) to study restoring the E Line from Heath St to Hyde Sq.

MY VIEW: The Canton interchange (House bill) is at the junction of two Interstate highways; it should be funded through the main section 2 appropriation for the state share of federal-aid highway improvements and programmed through the TIP and the STIP accordingly; just delete the earmark. The town of Natick should be expected to find a commercial development partner to build a TOD project that will include parking garages, so don’t fund those. The rest of this is a mess. See my proposal above.

At this point, the content and section numbering of the two bills diverges significantly. Section 4 in the House bill creates a legal framework for tax-increment financing to fund transportation improvements; section 5 in the Senate bill creates a legal framework for local and regional transportation ballot initiatives. The TIF structure is more beneficial to cities, and the local ballot initiative structure (which is exempted from Proposition 2½ limits on property taxes) is more beneficial to suburban towns and rural communities that don’t expect property values to increase significantly as a result of transportation projects.

MY VIEW: There’s no reason not to allow both; we need all the revenue sources we can get, and both of these structures are local-option, they don’t obligate any state funds.

All references below to the remainder of the Senate version of the bill…

Sections 7 and 12 through 16 amend the rules of the road to make explicit provision for e-bikes of various capabilities and electric scooters.

Section 21 provides for non-criminal treatment of MBTA fare evasion, including for designated non-police to issue citations.

Sections 22 through 24 provide for additional data collection from TNCs. Section 26 provides for confidentiality of personal data collected by the MBTA in the course of fare collection and enforcement.

Sections 36, 38, 39, and 64 create programs for low-income fares on the MBTA and on RTAs. The MBTA is required to implement, in cooperation with EOHHS; the RTAs are only required to report, and the RTAs are permitted to consider whether going fare-free would be more cost-effective. Section 36 dedicates the Commonwealth’s share of TNC fees to fund the MBTA low-income fare program, and section 64 sets a deadline of January 1, 2022 to implement the program.

MY VIEW: The Senate language for the above sixteen sections should be sustained.

Section 40 creates a commission on congestion pricing, to report by the end of CY21, and section 41 requires MassDOT to seek federal approval to implement a Value Pricing Pilot in consultation with this commission.

MY VIEW: Can the commission, just proceed directly to implementation.

Section 42 demands a feasibility study of VMT taxation, to report by the end of next March.

MY VIEW: Something will have to be done, as EV adoption will eat into the gas tax revenues if we manage to meet our climate goals. A VMT tax might be one such something. Or we could have more tolls, now that the state has demonstrated a capacity to collect them electronically.

Section 43 forbids MassDOT from raising tolls to finance the Allston project.

MY VIEW: dumb dumb dumb.

References below are to the remainder of the House bill:

Section 30 requires another study of East-West Rail.

MY VIEW: Why? What benefit is additional navel-gazing?

Section 31 requires a traffic study of the Southeast Expressway HOV lane.

Section 34 requires the MBTA to restore service to the Danvers campus of North Short Community College.

Section 35 requires MassDOT to study the impact of traffic-related noise.

Section 36 requires MassDOT to study the cost of full accessibility at commuter rail stations.

Section 38 requires the MBTA to establish “an office of transit parking and access” and develop a long-term plan for parking.

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