Creating Change Requires Muscle: Levers for Transforming Transportation

Creating change requires awareness and good intentions.  It also requires muscle.

Massachusetts now has a long list of laws and regulations requiring the transformation of our transportation system from car-centric to multi-modal, from speedways to pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly “complete streets”, from polluting to clean, from energy-wasting to sustainable, from green-house-gas emitting to climate-friendly, from disease and obesity facilitating to active and healthy.

But it’s not clear how much muscle all the new laws and regulations provide for those who seek to create the 21st century transportation system our political leaders have promised, either in mass transit or in road design (which is the focus on this post).   Transportation Secretary Jeff Mullan seems committed to change and MassDOT has begun a major civic input effort.  But little has yet been done to change the existing transportation decision-making process to give increased leverage to groups with a stake in moving away from our car-centric status quo.

Perhaps that’s why while MassDOT’s new Capital Investment Plan says it needs $10 million a year for ten years to create currently proposed shared use paths for pedestrians and cyclists, there’s nothing about actually spending the money.  The reason is that almost all the path projects have been removed from the state’s rolling four-year list of projects to receive funding.  Instead, over $770 million will be spent on highway expansion.

And it may be why, despite the official commitment to “complete streets,” that bike and walking advocates have to repeatedly fight, in project after project, for MassDOT road designers to include more than minimal compliance with standards for sidewalks, bike facilities, street crossings, and other non-car-focused facilities.  The only measurement that seems to count is traffic flow – which engineers always assume will increase in the future.  So the burden of limited street-space continues to be disproportionately dumped on the very modes that the state should be encouraging. 

People complained about sidewalks for years.  But fixing them didn’t rise to the top of the priority list until the passage of the federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in 1990.  Even more than adopting a goal of increasing access, the ADA also required the creation of measurable details (such as the dimensions of curb cuts) and gave citizens the right get court orders to force compliance.  Access problems have not disappeared, but the ability to compel action was the muscle that began to make things happen.

The state’s 2009 transportation reorganization law created MassDOT, a “single, integrated state agency” to end decades of dysfunctional non-cooperation among the autonomous agencies running the state’s roadways, highways, bridges, public transportation, and smaller airports.  This has already had a positive impact, increasing inter-modal collaboration even though the old Highway Department ended up as even more powerful after it absorbed both the old Turnpike Authority and much of the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) parkway system – including all the Charles River bridges.

But the law did not change the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) membership or process.  These 13 regional groups play a key role in deciding what projects are funded through their control of the Transportation Invention Plan (TIP) lists.  And the MPOs are dominated by a combination of state highway agencies and pro-road-building local interests.  Missing are representatives of public health, environmental, or smart growth agencies and advocates who might speak out for alternatives.

And while the new law did create a new Board of Directors for MassDOT, so far they appear to primarily see themselves as a fiscal watchdog rather than a strategic direction-setter.

Neither the law nor the MassDOT Board of Directors have required that the Highway Division seek public input on road projects during the conceptual stage rather than at the currently required 25% design stage – by which time its often too late to change the deeper modal assumptions built into the design:  assumptions about the extent of future increases in car traffic (versus walking or cycling or bus ridership) and the priority of keeping that traffic flowing over the needs of other modes.  (MassDOT has been experimenting with conceptual stage public meetings for some of the work being done through the Accelerated Bridge Program – hopefully this practice will spread across the organization.)

The new law did create an Office of Transportation Planning (OTP) to be “the principal source of transportation planning” for state-level, local, and regional projects and programs.”  OTP “shall be responsible for planning and programs that promote sustainable transportation, and that will: (i) maintain and expand transportation options that maximize mobility, reduce congestion, conserve fuel, and improve air quality; (ii) prioritize alternative modes including rail, bus, boat, rapid and surface transit, shared-vehicle and shared-ride services, bicycling, and walking; and (iii) invest strategically in existing and new passenger and freight transportation infrastructure that supports sound economic development consistent with established smart growth objectives….[as well as] safe routes to school, alternative fuels, and other planning initiatives…”

This impressive mission clearly positions OTP as the strategic planning arm of MassDOT setting out the transforming strategies and plans for the single-mode departments – the MBTA, the Highway Division, aeronautics – to follow as they develop more specific plans and implement projects.  But, as privately acknowledged by OTP staff, the reality is that OTP mostly acts as the servant of the departments, particularly the Highway Division, which have their own mode-oriented imperatives plans and only pull in OTP resources to help with community relations and other tasks.

The new law also created a “Health Transportation Compact,” bringing together the Secretaries of Transportation, Health, and Environment/Energy to “…develop a healthy transportation framework that increases access to healthy transportation alternatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improves access to services for persons with mobility limitations and increases opportunities for physical activities; …increase[s] bicycle and pedestrian travel throughout the Commonwealth, … encourage[s] the construction of complete streets, so-called, designed and operated to enable safe access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and bus riders of all ages to safely move along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas; …expand[s] service offerings for Safe Routes to Schools;…develop and implement a method for monitoring progress on achieving the goals of this section…”

Again, this is a majestic and transformational mission.  But the suggested “advisory council with private and non-profit advocacy groups” is still “under discussion” — and it is not clear how much influence it will have.  This is a legitimate concern given the minimal impact of the current Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Board (MaBPAB) due to its lack of authority or any method of implementing its purpose, its lack of connection with the Highway Department’s regional offices, and its out of date membership.  Similar problems exist with the current advisory groups relating to public transportation.

The newly announced “GreenDOT” program has three goals:  “(1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions; (2) promote the healthy transportation options of walking, bicycling, and public transit, (3) support smart growth development.”  These totally wonderful goals are backed up by the state’s Climate Protection and Green Economies Act which requires a 10% to 25% economy-wide reduction of green house gas emissions by 2011.  MassDOT says that “through our role on the MPOs we will ensure…that the MPOs balance highway system expansion projects with other projects that support smart growth development and promote public transit, walking, and bicycling.”

This is a good promise – which at least acknowledges that despite the state’s “fix it first” policy we’re still pouring money into road expansion.  But it’s just a promise.  As with the flexibility provided by the state’s new Highway Design Guidelines, the way it gets translated into “facts on the road” totally depends on the willingness of political leaders to push beyond the status quo, to go up against currently entrenched interests, to fight for meaningful change even though the transition will upset people.

Even the state’s new “fix it first” spending mantra – assuming that it is actually followed – is a step forward from the old “more construction” approach.  But after decades of neglect, simply repairing and maintaining our current roads and bridges before building more could absorb the state’s entire transportation budget.  Given limited resources, implementing the Commonwealth’s transportation vision will require letting some things slide in order to make transformative investments to facilitate non-car mobility.  Prioritizing new modes and methods, implementing new types of road designs, requires paying less attention to the needs of cars.

It takes time to make radical changes.  From his statements, it appears that Transportation Secretary Jeff Mullan is trying to move things in the new direction.    But nothing talks as loudly as money, and in that context what MassDOT’s investment plan and operating budget seems be saying is that the traditional highway focus still dominates decision-making.

Which is why it is so important to give more muscle to those who want change.

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