CAPITAL CONVERSATIONS: Themes for the Next Phase

Instead of internally creating a capital spending plan and then asking for public reaction, Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack held a series of public discussions, in-person and on-line, to ask what was on the public’s to-do list.  Her invitation has sparked some thoughts about themes that might shape future transportation system spending including:

  • Making Safety, not Eliminating Congestion, the Only Rationale for Construction;
  • Getting More Value and Better Leverage from Maintenance Work;
  • Empowering MassDOT’s District Offices to be Accountable for Complete Street Standards;
  • Changing What People Get Rewarded For;
  • Bringing In New Ideas and Skills.


We may be driving less per person in this country, but there are more of us and we have more cars per household, so rush “hours” are expanding and everyplace the road narrows, or goes over a bridge, or comes to an intersection, there are traffic backups.  So long as our population continues to sprawl across the landscape while our employment and shopping centers continue to be concentrated; so long as cars continue to be the most convenient mode of transportation for individualized movement between decentralized and concentrated locations; so long as we continue to mostly work between 8-10 until 4-7; so long as we are unwilling to destroy more neighborhoods and open spaces by filling them with the concrete of new roads – congestion is inescapable in all the pinch points.   When I first moved to Cambridgeport several decades ago the BU Bridge was busy between 5:45 and 6:30.  Now, the entire Memorial Drive stretch from the bridge to the Western Ave turn towards the Mass Pike is plugged tight from about 4 to 7:30.   And there is  simply no reason to think it will get anything but worse in coming years.

Major road capacity expansion projects only succeed in moving congestion to the next stretch of road.  Cars (usually) move through the Big Dig tunnels but take longer to get into the city from the north and stop longer than ever just to the south.  The $12,390,000 Sagamore Bridge flyover simply added to the traffic clogging the rest of the Cape.   

The only major road improvements worth doing anymore are the minimal possible changes needed to improve safety in high-crash locations or to add better transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities.   And these shouldn’t be excuses to increase car capacity behind a false promise of eliminating a bottleneck.  Reducing the danger of the Crosby Corner intersection on Route 2 could have been done much quicker, less disruptively, and for a lot less money than the (not yet finished) $48,000,000 lane expansion project that will simply make other parts of Route 2 slower.  There must have been a cheaper and quicker way to accomplish the safety goals of the never-ending six phases of the $350,000,000 expansion of I-95 (Rte. 128) without adding the 15 miles of new lanes – which will inevitably fill up as soon as they’re opened. 



Massachusetts has adopted a very progressive set of Complete Streets and multi-modal design guidelines, leading the nation in ways that the Federal Highway Administration is starting to follow.   However, in Massachusetts, as in most other states, the vast bulk of road spending goes to ordinary maintenance rather than expansion – meaning patching, repaving, and repainting as well as full-depth reconstruction.  So our greatest opportunity for road-based transportation improvement comes from the wise use of this money.  Unfortunately, the vast bulk of this money is used to simply return the damaged road to its previous condition – its old, car-centric design.  Instead, we need MassDOT and municipalities to use maintenance work – particularly repaving and repainting – as enormous opportunities to begin implementing the new policy approaches.

As part of this, the state needs to expand the definition of what can be done within the “ordinary maintenance” budget bucket.  Ordinary maintenance should include installing flexposts (or planters or barriers) to create protected bike lanes and improve safety at intersections, adding walk or bicycle signals, updating or changing signage, and paying for the creation of new engineering plans showing the desired new layout – where the crosswalks and bike lanes should go – to replace the old on-the-shelf drawings and repeat-what-is-there instructions now given to contractors.

Doing this will probably reduce the number of miles of pavement that a given amount of money can address.  But the public benefit of moving the state towards its legislated greenhouse gas reduction, multi-modal, and safety goals is worth the slight slowdown – especially if the state works with municipalities to prioritize work that creates high-desire-line networks for non-motorized mobility.



MassDOT’s central office deals with big projects.  But the vast majority of projects actually are run by the Districts.   However, few Districts have created effective procedures to review project designs to ensure they are incorporating state-of-the-art Complete Street principles or giving more than the minimal accommodations for non-car mobility.  In some parts of the state, transportation advocates are able to use public meetings to critique proposals and demand improvements.  But in most of the state, when public meetings about District projects are often poorly advertised and poorly attended.  Instead, project designs get generated and District Directors rely on Central Office reviewers to do an analysis and suggest improvements.

It would be better to require every District to create a “Walking, Cycling, and Transit” Advisory Group including someone from a local senior citizen group, someone from an environmental  organization, someone from a local (or regional) Bike and/or Walking Advocacy Group, someone from the Regional Planning Agency, someone from Public Health (or Primary Care), and a couple interested citizen volunteers.  This group would meet every month or two and get to review ALL projects under development.  They would NOT have veto power – the professional staff would retain the final say – but they would have the right to review, make suggestions, and get treated like valued participants.  The group would be co-chaired by the District Director and the District Bike/Ped Coordinator. 

The value and effectiveness of this District Advisory Group would be significantly increased if its members were given the opportunity to attending training.   Rather than using the U.Mass BayStateRoads group – primarily focused on technical road construction – MassDOT should solicit offers from an advocacy group to provide training on “how to be an effective member of an Advisory Group” -- including exposure to state-of-the-art multi-modal road designs. 

Finally, MassDOT should require the District Ped/Bike Coordinator to sign off on every project design before it goes to the central office with the affirmation that it “provides safe and maximally feasible facilities for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.”



The saying is that “what’s counted, counts; what’s rewarded is done.”   MassDOT is mostly held accountable for schedule and budget – on time, within budget – so it isn’t surprising that these goals get the most internal attention.  But it might be possible to elevate the visibility of some other metrics – which, in addition to carrying out the mandates of MassDOT’s Project Selection Criteria Council’s suggestions  might get the Legislature to begin more explicitly (and financially) rewarding the achievement of these broader goals.

MassDOT should start by changing the initial Project Need form to respond to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act by including a question such as “in what ways will this project lead to reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions and increase or facilitate the use of transit, bicycles, and walking.   Then, give annual awards to the District Office (and town?) that has the highest percentage of projects that go beyond the minimums.  And to help keep track of things, Vendors and Consultants doing conceptual design and engineering plans should be required to provide aggregate numbers for:

  • Percentage of the total budget that will be used for sidewalks, cycling facilities, and transit (especially bus) facilities;
  • Percentage of distance that the project covers that will include “better than minimal standard” ped/bike/bus treatment.  (e.g. sidewalks wider than 4 feet; bike’s given a protected lane of some kind or adjacent off-road path rather than “naked” lane; buses given signal priority; etc. – following NACTO and other guides)
  • Percentage and/or number of intersections given higher level safety treatment for vulnerable populations beyond basic ADA ramps (e.g. bulb-outs or raised crosswalk at intersections; protected bike lanes through intersections; bulb outs and weather-protected covers at bus stops, etc – following NACTO and other guides)
  • The Transportation & Climate Initiative of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States <> has a variety of other, more climate/energy focused measurement possibilities as well.



While the big consulting firms on the current Master Service Agreement list are slowly bringing in people who have actual experience creating multi-modal facilities, the majority of their staff are products of the former car-centric world.   If we want our consultants to do new things we need to ask new people to do it.  MassDOT should open up the Master Service Agreement process and radically simplify the application process to allow a new set of smaller, more progressive firms to become eligible to be the Prime on future contracts.


Thanks to the MassDOT staff, former and present, who gave suggestions for this blog.   Any factual errors and all the opinions are my own responsibility.


Related previous posts:

* TRAFFIC CONGESTION: Why Its Increasing and How to Reduce It

* SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE:  Technology and What It’s Used For

* INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS:  Balancing Front-Line Empowerment With Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

* SIGNS, PAINT, AND FLEXIBILITY: Creative No-Cost Ways To Improve Road Intelligibility


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