The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) learned this week that “teamwork makes the dream work,” at least when it comes to fixing bridges. After merely two and a half weeks, the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project is ahead of schedule, and the Massachusetts Turnpike was back to four lanes of traffic for Monday’s rush hour. Sounds to me like MassDOT could handle the projects that would come from increased investment in public transportation and infrastructure.
Let’s review what happened: MassDOT is spending $80 million to replace the existing bridge, tackling a project that the Secretary of Transportation labeled as the most complex in the Commonwealth due to its intersection of various modes of transit — including carrying a roadway and the MBTA Green Line (Branch B) over the MBTA commuter rail line and Amtrak, and over I-90. This project had the potential to disrupt the lives of thousands of commuters; but, it didn’t.
The last several weeks, MassDOT has done an excellent job of warning travelers of the nightmare commute that they could face if they didn’t plan well, or avoid the area all together. Commonwealth Avenue involved nearly 200 people working at a time, 24 hours a day. The weeks not only came and went without incident, but the project is ahead of schedule. Let’s invest some money and do it again!
MassDOT is ready to take on fast tracked and necessary modernization, and expansion projects to get the state’s transportation network to a 21st century standard. The Department oversees 9,578 miles of roads, over 5,000 bridges, 358 miles of rail track, and public transit, all of which require upgrades, maintenance, and expansion to meet the growing transportation needs of business and residents.
The public can handle transparent diversions, for the sake of long-term improvements. For weeks Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver and their teams cautioned travelers that navigating around the Commonwealth Bridge area would be a nightmare, unless you traveled via the commuter rail, bus, by foot or bike. The Department utilized public meetings, briefings, flyers, business outreach, and even partnered with innovative mapping technologies like Waze, to name a few, in order to reach all demographics of commuters — a model that could be applied to the state’s entire transportation network — whether the diversion is on a train or road because it worked. On the first Monday morning rush hour after the Mass Turnpike being cut down to two lanes, congestion was nowhere near anticipated levels.
Communication of this caliber could alter not only the way residents think about their morning commute, but could be the culture shift we need to encourage people to ditch their cars, and utilize public transportation. Improved wayfinding and emphasis on multimodal forms of travel could solve traffic congestion problems and enhance the commuting experience.
It’s time for increased investment in infrastructure and public transportation, and clearly MassDOT is up to the challenge. At the beginning of this year, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that 43% of all bridges in Massachusetts do not meet today’s bridge building standards. The state is making progress through the Accelerated Bridge Program, completing 186 projects with 12 more in construction. There are a lot of unknowns for the future of MassDOT’s capital budget, including a backlog of deficient bridges — 4,699 bridges need repairs, at a cost of $19 billion, and that’s just bridges.
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has a $7.3 billion deferred maintenance and capital investment backlog and an operating deficit of $242 million in fiscal year 2017, which will reach $427 million by fiscal year 2020.
Deteriorating roads aren’t just costly to the state. Massachusetts drivers spend over $1600 and 64 hoursannually in lost time due to traffic congestion. Gridlocked roads in and out of our economic centers are cutting in to work productivity and our ability to attract and retain a talented workforce.
Identifying a robust funding mechanism for our transportation system is still a challenge. Despite moving forward with a $17 billion 2018- 2020 Capital Investment Plan focused on system reliability, asset modernization and capacity expansion, MassDOT does not have the resources to meet the transportation demands of a 21st century economy. According to a 2017 report from Transportation for Massachusetts, the Department will need an additional $600 million per year every year for the next ten years to meet transportation needs.
While Massachusetts is still ranked number one in best states to live in, our deteriorating public transit, roads and bridges, and an unclear path to financing all of it leaves the state’s transportation system ranking close to last. Massachusetts may excel in other industries, but without a strong network connecting residents and businesses, the state’s economic future and potential is in jeopardy.
The road ahead is long, but progress made on Commonwealth Avenue Bridge means that MassDOT has the capability to manage complex improvement projects responsibly. MassDOT sent a message that was loud and clear this week — they’re ready to bring Massachusetts a state of the art transportation system, on time and budget, if they have the resources to do so.
Meagan Greene is the Program Director of The Alliance for Business Leadership