Wake-Up Call: The Time For Action On The T Is Today

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A red line train car derailed at the JFK/UMass station on Tuesday.

It’s a recurring issue, and to even write the words seems like an exercise in stating the obvious: the Metro Boston transit and rail system is not serving the needs of our people, our economy or our quality of life.

The recent derailments and switch failures on the Red and Green Lines ought to be the final wake-up call that triggers swift action by elected and appointed officials to change the decades-old auto-centric paradigm, and to embark upon an unprecedented but necessary era of accelerated, massive investment in the public transportation network. This isn’t merely a response to the recurring disruptions, or to the intractable traffic congestion that chokes our productivity every weekday. It is a necessity driven by 21st century mobility needs and preferences. It is a recognition that our future depends upon a transit and rail system that supports private sector investment, better air quality, and reliable and affordable access to jobs, school, healthcare and other key destinations.

Most economic growth in Metro Boston is happening in proximity to transit growth clusters, near subway or commuter rail stations. This isn’t a coincidence. For business to thrive, employees must have easy and equitable access to their jobs. Do we think that companies invest in our region because of our fine weather? Think again. Investment is attracted by the availability of talent, and the talent is attracted to a city and region that offers a high quality of life. Our failing mobility system is putting that into jeopardy.

Income inequality and rising housing costs are displacing many people out of the inner urban core and toward the outer edges of Greater Boston. How are they gaining access to their jobs and other destinations? Largely locked out of ride hailing services that promote surge pricing during critical peak travel times, they take public transportation out of necessity. Their ability to function and thrive in today’s world depends in large part on the availability of affordable, reliable transit. That increasingly means bus transit, a service that is begging for a massive re-imagination. Recent efforts in Everett, Boston, Cambridge and Arlington to introduce dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal priority and level boarding have been successful beyond anyone’s expectations. Better bus transit can improve urban mobility for everyone. By moving more people more efficiently, it relieves pressure on a finite roadway network and does so by providing a highly egalitarian and operationally flexible form of transportation.

How do we achieve the goal of a modern, reliable, convenient public transportation system? It isn’t complicated. It takes an understanding of the critical areas of opportunity that lie before us, and a commitment to accelerated investment in targeted initiatives. First, accelerate the pace of repair and modernization work. Second, commit to a transition to an electrified, modern Regional Rail system that replaces today’s inadequate commuter rail service. An intercity rail service that is fast, efficient and clean and that runs all day long with convenient frequencies will be the single most effective way to reduce traffic congestion and link people to jobs and opportunities across the region. Third, invest in the short term in critical transit connectivity projects. Two stand out: connecting the Red and Blue Lines, and building a new West Station as an early action item of the Allston Landing project. Those two initiatives will reduce traffic congestion in the inner core by providing thousands of people with better transit and rail access to their daily destinations.

All of this requires net new revenue, and there are several ways to raise that revenue with fairness and transparency. Three revenue initiatives can happen immediately to take effect this year. First, raise the gas tax. Our gas tax is artificially low, and since Michael Dukakis left office in January 1991, it has been increased only once and by a mere 3 cents. That means its buying power is at an all-time low. Second, raise fees on ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and dedicate that new revenue to public transportation and Complete Streets. Third, impose a daily carbon-and-congestion impact fee on all non-residential parking spaces in inner core communities, and dedicate that money to transit and Complete Streets.

There are other revenue initiatives that can come into effect in the reasonably short term. First, the revenue associated with what is known as the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) will likely become available sometime around 2020 or 2021. Those funds should be allocated in a regionally equitable manner and should be dedicated to public transportation and sustainable mobility. Second, a regional road pricing policy should be implemented. Massachusetts needs Congress to act in order to toll interstates other than the turnpike; our state and municipal elected leaders ought to be asking our powerful Congressional leaders to make this a priority at the federal level. But Massachusetts can begin to price other (non-interstate) roads quickly. That pricing can come in many forms: time-of-day pricing (traditional peak hour pricing); throughput pricing (pricing tied to traffic flow); cordon pricing (as is in place in London and Stockholm); or VMT pricing (charging motorists a set price with escalators for each mile driven on designated roads). The key is to do so in a regionally equitable way.

I understand that there may be other ways to raise revenue, including the proposed Fair Share Amendment. I have limited myself here to revenue generated from transportation sources, which I believe is the right first step, but we should remain open to creative ideas to raise the funds we need to transform our transit and rail network.

None of this is complicated. It takes political will to make it happen. Will the people of Metro Boston demand action? Will elected officials listen and act? If not now, when?

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation. He is a principal at Trimount Consulting and is on the board of TransitMatters.