While much of the state’s new Transportation Reform Act simply feels like a rearrangement of the deck chairs on a financially sinking ship, it does contain some ground-breaking components that – if aggressively utilized – could significantly change the rules of transportation planning for the better.
One of these innovative components is called the Healthy Transportation Compact. It creates an inter-agency group including the Secretaries of Transportation, Health & Human Services, Energy & Environment, the Administrators for Highways and for Mass Transit, and the Commissioner of Public Health – or their designees. This group has enormous potential leverage; the Act says they shall:
- Develop policies to create a transportation system that increases opportunities for physical activity — particularly safe bicycle and pedestrian travel along and across roadways in urban and suburban areas; and
- Create methods to evaluate the impact of transportation projects on public health.
This pioneering initiative could provide powerful leverage not only for improving the well-being of our citizens (thereby, hopefully, also reducing taxpayer and family expenditures on health care) but also for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (another goal of the Compact).
If fully taken advantage of, the Compact represents an historic shift in how Massachusetts thinks about transportation. For the first time, public health, environmental protection, energy conservation, and quality of life issues are being recognized as collectively as important as car speed, with the result that state government is — at least in theory — moving towards a multi-use transportation system that fully embraces the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists as much as automobiles.
The bottom line, of course, is whether state leaders take this opportunity seriously. And keeping it from dropping to the bottom of their to-do lists, underneath all the headline-grabbing problems with MBTA financing and swine-flu vaccinations, will require the strengthening of the still emerging coalition of progressive transportation, public health, environmental/climate, and city planning activists whose efforts got the Compact into the bill in the first place.