Five Steps To Make GreenDOT Real: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

With GreenDot, Massachusetts has placed itself among the national leaders on climate-protecting, sustainable, healthy transportation.  And the challenges MassDOT has to deal with as it moves from general policies to effective action under fiscal constraint will create a path that other state’s will need to follow.

GreenDOT has three goals:

  • “Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” in activities directly under MassDOT’s own control by at least 7.3% by 2020 and 12.3% by 2050 compared with 1990 levels,” thereby meeting its share of the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions required by the state’s 2008 Climate Protection and Green Economy Act.
  • “Promote the healthy transportation modes of walking, bicycling, and public transit,” as required by the Healthy Transportation Compact provisions of the 2009 act that created MassDOT, and the state’s 2008 Green Communities Act.
  • “Support smart growth development,” as required by several state policies.

Fully implementing these goals will profoundly change the state’s entire transportation system.  The GreenDOT policy directive contains a list of implementation strategies (called “Exhibit B”) that MassDOT will use.  As is appropriate for an initial statement they are very high level and non-specific.  For example, it says that “state-wide planning documents…will integrate the three GreenDOT goals” and “All MassDOT projects must include accommodation of pedestrians and bicycles…”

A big question is if, in this time of tax-phobia and limited public funds, the state can keep GreenDOT’s promise from being separated from its reality by a canyon of missing resources.  The following is a list of five, low-cost steps that MassDOT might want to consider.  Of course, just because they don’t take a lot of money doesn’t mean that they will be politically easy.  Still, all five are consistent with MassDOT’s announced strategies.  And all five will significantly contribute to giving GreenDOT the transformative impact that the law and the public expect.

  • Analyze all current and pending projects for their contribution to achievement of the three goals; stop or scale back those with a negative impact.
  • Revamp membership and procedures of the MPOs so that funding decisions are shaped by the three goals.
  • Build-in more public oversight and muscle to keep the government on track.
  • Move beyond the “Highway Design Guide’s” flexibility to require prioritization of Environmental, Walking, Bicycling, and Transit facilities.
  • Refocus on small, local projects and programs to continue progress despite the continuing fiscal constraints.


I) Analyze all current and pending projects for their contribution to achievement of the three goals; stop or scale back those with a negative impact.

  • The state currently plans to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on road expansion.  While the short-term congestion relief these may provide will create a short-term positive impact on air quality, we know that increased road capacity inevitably leads to increased traffic, which will simply recreate the pollution.  In addition, these projects absorb so much of our limited capital money that there is little left to pay for the transformative investments needed to fully implement the goals.
  • Some projects that need immediate reappraisal in light of GreenDOT include the Route 2 flyover in Concord, the expansion of Rte. 3, the Middlesex Parkway, the widening of Rt. 128/95, and several more.
  • In particular, MassDOT’s Board of Directors should require that every road project must be based on a full, multi-modal analysis of how it will impact safety and “travel quality” for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders as well as car drivers.  Currently, the only hard measurements most road designers pay attention to are the “level of service” and the “reduction in travel time” benefits to be gained by drivers.

II) Revamp membership and procedures of the MPOs so that funding decisions are shaped by the three goals.

  • Federal and state laws require a certain proportion of capital investment decisions to be made through the state’s 13 regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations, a structure similar to that in other states.  Each MPO is slightly different, but all include a significant percentage of state agency representatives whose opinions carry significant weight, as well as representatives of local municipalities.  (MPO decisions that go against state agency desires often end up being delayed or revised.)  MPOs are notoriously car-centric, still embedded in the belief that road construction will both solve congestion and improve local business.
  • The 2009 transportation restructuring act unified many of the state agencies represented on the MPOs.  This creates an opportunity to re-assign those state seats to the Department of Public Health, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Smart Growth office of the Secretariat of Housing and Economic Development.
  • As part of this process, it also would be good to find ways to include representatives of local Public Health and Environmental Protection offices, and even pedestrian, bicycle, and transit advocacy groups.

III) Build-in more public oversight and muscle to keep the government on track.

  • Currently, it appears that the Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs is in charge of ensuring compliance with the Climate Protection and Green Economy Act.  But this requires one part of a governor’s Administration to police another part – which is unlikely to happen because it requires a governor to publicly admit her own failure.  And there is no enforcement focus for the Healthy Transportation Compact outside MassDOT itself.
  • Sidewalks were ignored until the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) 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.  GreenDOT, and the entire GHG reduction effort, needs similar outside muscle.
  • MassDOT needs to restructure its Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Board and the Mass Transit Advisory Board, as well as create the mandated Healthy Transportation Advisory Board and create a Sustainability Advisory Board – either as separate groups or combined into one multi-subcommittee board – and then give them real power to examine all plans, evaluate all projects, and make recommendations directly to both MassDOT leadership and the MassDOT Board of Directors.

IV) Move Beyond the “Highway Design Guide’s” Flexibility To Require Prioritization of Environmental, Walking, Bicycling, and Transit Facilities.

  • Originally, the state Highway Design Guide was an innovative step away from highway-size-fits-all-roads federal requirements.  The Guide created ranges of possible lane widths, and mandated that pedestrian and bicycle accommodations be given full consideration.  It called for “context sensitive” design and a “complete streets” approach that “started from the sidewalk and then moved into the road.  Overall, it gave road designers much more flexibility.
  • But the Guidelines did not change road designers’ professional culture or default assumptions – not only within MassDOT’s highway division but even more among the municipal DPW staff who are in charge of most local roads.  They were trained to believe that safety and mobility was based on giving cars priority.  And many local business leaders believe the same thing – even though there is now plenty of research and experience to prove otherwise.
  • So, road designers now use the Guideline’s flexibility as permission to only include the minimum ped/bike accommodations – or none at all: it turns out that it’s been rather easy to secure an “exemption” to even ignore the minimums.
  • Changing this pattern requires MassDOT to explicitly require that all road projects provide the maximum possible accommodations to non-motorized mobility, and to proscriptively suggest examples of the default starting points.  It should still be possible to request an exemption, but the approval process should be strict and relatively inflexible.

V) Refocus on Small, Local Projects and Programs To Continue Progress Despite the Continuing Fiscal Constraints.

  • To avoid raising taxes in the current anti-government political climate, Massachusetts was forced to borrow against the next two decades of federal transportation funds in order to pay for the Big Dig and then for the desperately needed bridge repair program.  And it now seems that the already-overdue federal transportation funding bill won’t be passed for two or more years – and won’t include significant new money when it is approved.  So money is tight and is going to get tighter.
  • Massachusetts already needs nearly 20 billion dollars simply to bring its current transportation infrastructure to a state of good repair, much less make the huge investments in rail roads, buses, and other mass transit programs in all parts of the state that are needed to meet the Climate Protection and Green Economy Act goals – which is yet another reason to re-examine and cancel many of the currently planned mega-cost road expansion projects.
  • Transportation agencies have earned their reputations by implementing huge, multi-year projects; the bigger and more headline-catching the better for everyone’s careers.  But most people’s daily lives are more impacted by the local roads around their homes and shopping areas than by the big-ticket monuments to our dependence on imported oil.
  • The solution is synergy.  Create lots of small projects and local programs – such as Safe Routes To School, Safe Roads for Seniors, Safe Rides To Stations, etc. – that respond to local government and advocates needs.  And then leverage the impact of these small grants with technical assistance and by integrating them into other state programs from other agencies.  For example, why not build on the transportation restructuring law’s creation of a Healthy Transportation Compact and put money into expanding the transportation components of the Department of Public Health’s “Mass In Motion” grant program.
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