On the slow train to financial reality
THE MBTA, Turnpike Authority, and other parts of a sprawling transportation bureaucracy are about to be consolidated into a single agency. One job for this new authority must be to rethink which mega-projects the state should pursue aggressively. Some projects, including the long-discussed $8 billion tunnel linking North and South stations, won’t survive such closer scrutiny.
For years, Massachusetts has been blessed with leaders who understand the vital importance of public transportation, so planners are in the habit of thinking big, rather than saying no. But the need for restraint is apparent. Federal transportation officials rejected a long list of proposed transit and highway projects in 2007 in part because it lacked any fiscal modesty. While the state slashes health programs amid plunging revenues, it expects to spend $29 million to design a connection downtown between the Red Line and the Blue Line – never mind that the money to build the $300 million project won’t come through anytime soon.
Local drawing boards are replete with potentially worthy conceptions, a few of which have been lingering on the vine for so long that John Volpe and Frank Sargent probably discussed them during the Nixon administration. The more recently proposed Urban Ring, a bus-rapid-transit circuit through Boston’s outer neighborhoods and inner suburbs, would involve a $1.7 billion tunnel at the Longwood Medical Area. A $1.5 billion tunnel connecting the two parts of the Silver Line would give Roxbury and South End residents “one-seat’’ access to Logan Airport and the new business district emerging on the South Boston Waterfront.
And that’s just the tunnels. Other projects once listed as high priorities for the region include expansion of the Green Line to Medford, the Blue Line to Lynn, and the commuter rail system to Fall River and New Bedford.
This page has supported virtually all of these projects. But maybe, just maybe, some of them won’t be built anytime soon – or ever. As debts associated with the $14-billion-plus Big Dig hobble transportation agencies in Massachusetts, the prospect of building four more tunnels under Boston is a distant fantasy.
To Fred Salvucci – the visionary who planned the Big Dig and a strong supporter of public transportation – giving up on some projects looks like defeatism. There’s no telling where money and political support will end up, he says. When he served as transportation secretary under Michael Dukakis, he was convinced that the Blue Line would reach Lynn long before the Red Line, which at the time ended at Harvard, would be extended to Alewife. Events proved otherwise. So Salvucci argues for identifying an array of desirable projects and then pushing hard for all of them. The state has to be willing to do design work on a variety of projects, he says, because having well-developed plans is crucial to getting federal funds.
Yet nearly all major projects require substantial local matching funds. And to many current officials, the fiscal requirements look quite daunting. The Legislature just committed $275 million in new revenues to transportation, but for operations, not capital improvements, notes Marc Draisen, head of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The state, he says, must not “keep telling every advocate, ‘Keep designing, we’ll get to you eventually.’ ’’ Making too many promises can be expensive: Design work generally eats up 7 to 10 percent of a project’s budget.
Some signs of progress toward creating a more realistic, actionable set of priorities is evident. Transportation Secretary James Aloisi has called for funding all of a few projects rather than parts of many. A state-led planning group is about to release a slimmed-down regional transportation plan for Greater Boston. The list of transit projects is limited to the Green Line expansion to College Avenue in Medford, a new Orange Line station in Somerville, new commuter rail parking spaces, and design of the Red Line-Blue Line connector – all of which the state agreed to complete in a Big Dig-related legal settlement with the Conservation Law Foundation. Before a new regional plan is due two years from now, the planning group and the new transportation agency should make a more detailed review of big-ticket projects.
A Green Line expansion would top a sensible list of major improvements, not least because it extends rapid transit through underserved but densely populated areas of Somerville and Medford. And a version of the Urban Ring would complement the current transit system, which consists mainly of spokes radiating from downtown – but that project must be scrutinized more closely for affordability.
In evaluating a project, state planners consider how many car trips it might prevent, what effect it might have on land use, and how its benefits measure up against its costs. We would add other criteria: Are there cheaper ways to achieve the same transportation and environmental goals? Can objections from community residents be addressed?
Focusing on a long list of big-ticket transit projects only makes it harder to zero in on the most important ones and then muster the financial, political, and technical expertise necessary to make them happen.
It’s admirable to dream, but the immediate post-Big Dig era of Massachusetts transportation will be one of practicality over promises.