Fixing Our Transportation Crisis Requires Long-Term Vision

Imagine, if you can, a transit system that actually worked.

here’s no denying it anymore: our transportation system in Massachusetts is in a full-blown crisis. Almost every day we see new headlines or alerts telling us of something gone horribly wrong. Two derailments on the Green and Red lines in the span of four days, the latter of which won’t be fixed until the end of summer. Buses catching on fire. The worst traffic congestion in America. An outdated Commuter Rail system. A $10 billion dollar maintenance and repair backlog. All of this and a 6% fare increase on the MBTA went into effect on July 1 despite massive pushback from T riders.

The emergency light has been flashing on our transportation system for years. In the face of such a glaring crisis, one would expect our elected officials to be responding with the urgency that a crisis demands. Instead, we’ve gotten vague promises from the state legislature about a transportation funding package while Governor Baker has announced a plan for a one-time, $50 million infusion for the MBTA — a drop in the bucket for a system in desperate need of new revenue.

While this response from elected officials is disappointing, it is indicative of a much larger problem in Massachusetts politics: a lack of vision for our statewide transportation network.

For years, Massachusetts has lurched from crisis to crisis in our transportation network while our Democratic-controlled state legislature — despite veto-proof majorities in both chambers — has been reluctant both to outline a long term transportation vision and to raise new revenue. Governor Baker, meanwhile, has insisted that his “vision” for the MBTA is “making the thing work,” as if basic functionality were a luxury and not a baseline expectation.

hat would a long-term vision for our public transit systems look like? And what is the best way to raise the necessary new revenue? It’s a daunting question, but here are some specific policy initiatives and options for raising progressive revenue that would greatly improve public transit in Massachusetts:

Regional Rail

The MBTA Commuter Rail is an integral part of our statewide public transit network, but the current business model is woefully out of date and fails to give riders the frequency and quality of service they need and deserve. Our failure to modernize Commuter Rail service has resulted in increased traffic congestion and leaves thousands dependent on owning, maintaining, and driving cars.

Regional Rail, an idea championed by TransitMatters, would transform the Commuter Rail into a more reliable, frequent, and cost-effective intercity rail system. Perhaps most importantly, Regional Rail would require more frequent service all day: every 30 minutes in the suburbs and every 15 minutes in Boston and other Inner Core communities. Regional Rail would also electrify the entire system, enabling use of Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) to replace the current push/pull diesel fleet. In addition to being faster, more reliable, and cheaper to maintain, EMUs are much cleaner than diesel trains, which is particularly important as transportation is the #1 source of CO2 emissions.

Public transit must be frequent and reliable all day, not just during rush hour. A Regional Rail system would provide our current Commuter Rail network with the frequency of service we need in the 21st Century.

Build West Station Now

West Station is a planned multimodal station on the MBTA Commuter Rail Framingham/Worcester Line, to be located in the former Beacon Park Yard in Allston. The Allston Interchange project to straighten the Mass. Pike in Allston will open up space for the land, and provides a prime opportunity to build the station while the area is a construction site. West Station would provide Commuter Rail access for the surrounding neighborhood, straighten out bus routes in Allston, and set the stage for eventual rail service into Kendall Square in Cambridge via the Grand Junction Railroad.

So what’s the problem? The Mass. Pike realignment is likely to start within the next year. The Baker Administration, however, continues to insist that West Station does not need to be built until 2040.

Aside from being another example of the current administration’s lack of long-term vision, delaying West Station for 20 years is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the area around the proposed West Station site in Allston is already developing rapidly, and development is only going to increase after the Mass. Pike realignment. The explosion of development around the New Balance HQ at Boston Landing is all the proof one needs that this area will continue to grow rapidly. Second, Harvard alone has offered to pay $58 million toward the estimated $95 million cost, while BU has offered up a smaller, unspecified amount. These commitments have taken the vast majority of the cost off the state’s plate, so it makes neither financial nor strategic sense to delay this project by 20 years.

The Seaport District offers us a glaring cautionary tale of what happens when a neighborhood develops rapidly without adequate transit and a long-term planning vision. Anyone who has spent an hour in the Seaport District knows how poor the public transit options are, how congested the roads are, and how substandard the cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is. For better or worse, Allston is developing rapidly, and the Mass. Pike realignment project has given us a once in a lifetime planning opportunity. We can’t afford to waste it by delaying West Station for 20 years.

East-West Rail

Anyone who has driven from Springfield to Boston during rush hour can attest to how miserable the experience is. Senator Eric Lesser recently joined a group of commuters who carpool in a van from Springfield to Boston every morning. Those commuters leave at 5:30 a.m. every morning and get back around 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. each night.

It’s no secret that Greater Boston has seen a sustained economic boom in the last few years. What is often left out of that conversation, however, are the glaring income and economic disparities between Greater Boston, our Gateway Cities, and more rural parts of Western Massachusetts. A recent report shows that these disparities are only likely to grow, as the state is projected to see increased growth in Greater Boston while the Cape and Western Massachusetts shrink.

High-speed east-west Commuter Rail would spur economic growth in Western Massachusetts, while also easing traffic and housing problems in and around Boston. Thankfully, after years of debate and advocacy, a study is underway. The challenge now is to hold the Baker Administration accountable while building the political will in the state legislature.

Red-Blue Connector

The fact that the Red and Blue Lines are not currently connected by rail is nothing short of baffling. Connecting the two lines by rail at Charles/MGH would allow Blue Line commuters to access job centers and health care in Cambridge and Somerville and Red Line commuters to reach East Boston without needing to walk or use a third line to transfer. Although the state has made commitments to building the Red-Blue Connector, they’ve been shaky at best.

If and when we do extend the Blue Line to Charles/MGH, why stop there? As Ari Ofsevit has pointed out, if we’re going to extend the Blue Line we should think bigger. Why not go all the way to Kendall Square? Ideally, we should extend the Blue Line all the way to West Station in Allston via the Grand Junction Railroad.

Progressive Revenue to Fix and Fund the MBTA and Regional Transit Authorities

The root causes of our transportation crisis can be traced back to decades of systemic underinvestment in our transit networks. Decades of tax cuts have significantly reduced our ability to invest in and maintain our infrastructure. Instead of raising net new revenue for the MBTA, the Baker Administration has relied on inequitable and unjustifiable fare increases. As a result, MBTA fares have increased by 41% since 2012 while the quality of service has sharply decreased.

Meanwhile, Regional Transit Authorities across Massachusetts have been financially starved for years and have recently faced tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts. The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which serves over 600,000 individuals and provides over 11 million rides per year, has been forced to raise fares by 20% and implement major service cuts on nights and weekends.

The need for new transportation revenue could not be any clearer. What, then, is the best way to raise new revenue? Many transportation advocates and organizations have advocated for congestion pricing and large increases to the state gas tax as a way to both raise revenue and encourage drivers to use public transit. While both methods would be effective, their political viability is questionable at best. Recent polling has shown strong opposition to both ideas both in Boston and in surrounding communities. Furthermore, the 2014 gas tax increase repeal showed us that voters not only disapprove of raising the gas tax, but will actively fight back at the ballot box.

Thankfully there are plenty of other ways to raise progressive revenue that are both equitable and popular. Here are several ways we could raise new revenue to fix, fund, and expand our statewide transit networks:

  1. Raise C-Corp Tax Rates: As in most other states, corporations in Massachusetts pay a variety of different taxes, including an excise tax on net income. Most larger businesses (many of which are organized as C-corporations for tax purposes) pay the Massachusetts net profit tax at a rate of 8%, which was lowered from 9.5% to 8% between 2009 and 2012. MassBudget estimates that “each 1 percentage point increase in the rates applied to C-corps (and other large businesses, including banks, financial institutions, and insurance companies) might generate between $200 -$300 million in additional annual tax revenue,” on top of the roughly $2.8 billion collected annually through business taxes.
  2. Surtax on the Sale of Multi-Million Dollar Homes: Massachusetts collects a 0.456% excise tax on the sale of real estate. By imposing a “mansion tax” on multi-million dollar homes (as many other states already have), Massachusetts could raise tens of millions of dollars annually. MassBudget estimates that “applying a 2 percent tax only to sales over $2.5 million, while applying a 5 percent rate to sales of $5 million or more would also generate about $70 million in annual revenue.”
  3. Fair Share Amendment: Raise Up Massachusetts has revitalized its efforts to pass the Fair Share Amendment, which would impose a surcharge of 4% on the state’s income tax for earnings above $1 million. More than three quarters of Massachusetts voters support asking our wealthiest residents to pay their fair share so that we can afford to invest in transportation and education. It is estimated that the Fair Share Amendment could generate up to $2 billion annually in new revenue.
  4. Raise the Massachusetts Estate Tax: The Massachusetts estate tax applies to estates valued over $1 million upon the death of the owner. In recent years this tax has generated approximately $330–470 million per year, and has only applied to the wealthiest 2 to 3% of estates in Massachusetts. A small increase in the estate tax for the highest-valued estates could generate a good amount of additional revenue.
  5. Regional Transportation Ballot Initiatives: Regional ballot initiatives in the United States allow municipalities to place a question on the ballot to raise revenue for local and regional transportation projects. Pending legislation in the State House would allow for regional ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and would allow municipalities to raise revenue without relying on the state legislature. This legislation would further allow two or more municipalities to form a regional district to coordinate the spending of revenue raised by an initiative in each member municipality for regional transportation projects, which is particularly important for funding Regional Transit Authorities.
  6. Raise the Tax Rate on Capital Gains and/or Dividends and Interest: Long-term capital gains, dividends, and interest are taxed at the same 5.05% rate as wage and salary income. Ownership of these types of unearned income is heavily concentrated in top-income households. According to MassBudget, “taxing dividend and interest income at the prior rate of 12 percent would generate about $840 million annually for the Commonwealth. With capital gains taxes now delivering about $1.7 billion in revenues annually, each one percentage point increase in the capital gains tax rate would generate approximately $300 million in additional annual revenue.”

When it comes to fixing and funding our transportation network in Massachusetts, we have no shortage of popular, progressive ideas. The only thing missing in the State House is a long-term vision to make it happen and the political will to move the ball forward. After years of crises and with riders abandoning public transit in droves, we cannot afford to wait any longer. Our regional economy depends on a reliable transportation system that provides every part of Massachusetts with equitable access to opportunity. The ideas outlined above would go a long way toward fixing our transit systems and building a connected Commonwealth.

Lawyer + policy nerd ⚖️ | LGBTQ advocate 🏳️‍🌈 | Transit warrior 🚇 | Climate hawk 🌎

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