Transportation in Massachusetts: Don’t Let the Bubble of Certainty Explode

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem KoolhaasA famous Dutch architect has got me thinking about the future of transportation in Massachusetts. Stay with me here …

A famous Dutch architect has got me thinking about the future of transportation in Massachusetts. Stay with me here …

Rem Koolhaas, celebrated architect and a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, is the man behind the acclaimed Seattle Central Library. In 2004 The New York Times called it “a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon. If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West.” Once upon a time, the same could have been said of major transportation projects in Massachusetts (ok, perhaps minus the “blazing chandelier” part). The construction of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges in the 1930s allowed for the expansion of the Cape Cod Canal. It was brave, and allowed people to think bigger about everything from recreation to security. The MBTA — “America’s First Subway” — required the leaders, workers and riders of the day to have the courage to go underground, which seems routine today but, at the time, it took nerves of steel. It’s success made mobility and investment possible in entirely new ways, and changed urban transit across the country. Heck, even the Big Dig works as an example here.

So, how does one get a green light for a brave civic project? Here, Koolhaas has an answer, and a warning: “The areas of consensus shift unbelievably fast; the bubbles of certainty are constantly exploding.” So, reach consensus and act before it disappears.

That transportation has been a hot topic in Massachusetts for some time isn’t breaking news. But it is news that consensus is finally starting to form around the urgency of the issue. In just the past few weeks it has become increasingly clear that two key constituencies — employers and voters — are pointing to the need for swift action around the Commonwealth’s transportation challenges. Last month Jim Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, told The Boston Globe that “everything should be on the table” when it comes to fixing the MBTA. The Massachusetts Business Roundtable’s website asserts that “MBR believes that investing in transportation — roads, bridges, mass transit — is a key ingredient to strengthening the state’s economic competitiveness.“ Mere days ago, former Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, now the head of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said of commuter rail service, “we need to build more capacity and flexibility.” Virtually every business group across the Commonwealth, including the Alliance for Business Leadership, has identified transportation as a top priority.

And voters are echoing that collective sentiment. WBUR just released a poll showing that 70 percent of likely voters in Massachusetts think it’s time to up spending on infrastructure, including roads, bridges and the T. Voters have been beating this drum for a while now. In June, they said they liked the idea of raising money locally to pay for transportation needs in their own backyards, consistent with results from similar questions for the past six years. This past February, another WBUR poll showed that voters haven’t seen an improvement in the state’s transportation system over the past five years, and that they want to see more money spent to solve our transportation woes. Three years ago, over 80 percent of Boston voters cried out for MBTA fixes to be a major priority, and in 2013 voters demonstrated their understanding of the economic value of investing in transportation and willingness to consider the need for new revenue to support that growth.

The business community thinks we have a problem. Voters think we have a problem. The cherry on this consensus sundae? U.S. News & World Report thinks we have a problem. They dubbed Massachusetts 45th in the nation for infrastructure in their 2018 Best States Rankings. Ouch.

Which brings me back to Koolhaas. We clearly have an area of consensus. Even people looking in from the outside agree that we need to tackle transportation. Can we act before our bubble of certainty explodes? I have no doubt that we can. Massachusetts has a history of embarking on brave civic projects that allow all of us to dream. The question isn’t can we act, but will we. Will we embrace the consensus that has developed around the critical need to improve and invest in our transportation systems? Or will we delay, and study, and focus group, and survey until the consensus shifts and the bubble has burst?