In January of this year, Governor Baker announced the creation of a Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth to advise the Administration on future transportation needs and challenges. The Governor named 18 appointees to the Commission and charged them with developing a range of technology and transportation scenarios anticipated between 2020 and 2040, culminating in a report and recommendations to be delivered to the Governor by December 1, 2018.
We are encouraged by this focus on long-term visioning and planning. Transportation and infrastructure investments may be 20+ years in the making and subject to changing demographics, technologies and aspirations, but the visioning needs to be proactive and continuous.
An important part of this broader discussion is how Massachusetts chooses to approach the wave of emerging changes in transportation technology. It is easy to look to the future and be seduced by the seemingly apolitical promise of technology to guide us away from difficult policy decisions. But technology is not an antidote to public policy. While we are certainly in the midst of paradigm-shifting technological change, the future of transportation is not about technological disruptions that will happen to us; rather, it is about harnessing technological innovation to meet our common goals.
An efficient, equitable and modern transportation network is essential in order to meet our goals of maximizing economic vitality, prioritizing social equity, encouraging smart growth, improving public health, delivering a cleaner environment and maintaining a high quality of life. We must also recognize that we cannot build a transportation system that supports and advances our goals for the Commonwealth without behavior change. Travel mode, location choices, zoning, infrastructure and funding mechanisms have the ability to change people’s behavior. The good news is that behavioral choices are not immutable but rather rather are a result of past policy decisions among other factors. If we make some of the tough political decisions now, new norms are a natural and less difficult result and will ensure that we use our system to its full potential and support it in a sustainable way.
The greatest transportation challenge facing Greater Boston is the urgent need for viable improvement strategies and a comprehensive finance plan that moves Massachusetts away from the status quo to a system that matches our ambition as a Commonwealth. One significant example involves rail infrastructure that better connects “Growth Clusters” (neighborhoods expected to experience substantial development by 2040) with major employment districts and Urban Gateway Cities that lack reliable rapid transit service. Massachusetts can achieve that by reimagining legacy commuter rail service as a high-frequency urban rail service within Greater Boston and a robust regional rail service outside I-95/Rt.128 – if revenues are available.
Any number of possible transportation finance strategies such as “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (VMT) pricing to supplement or replace gas taxes, all-electronic tolling on additional highways (as federal law allows), smarter tolling, emissions and congestion pricing, would not only generate resources needed to finance key priorities like reimagined commuter rail, these tactics would catalyze the promise of a modern, comfortable, convenient transit system that meets our needs for generations to come. Massachusetts can no longer wait to generate funding for design, procurement and construction work and capacity improvements. Transportation will continue to be the cornerstone of our economy and we can take advantage of our growing prosperity to build better, healthier and more equitable communities by embracing and supporting the important role of transportation in our economy and our lives.