The Three Legs of Transportation Reform: And Why MassDOT Has To Start Standing On At Least Two Of Them

The debates leading up to the passage of the 2009 Transportation Restructuring Act had three themes:

  • Organizational & Operational Reform:
    • Creating a unified transportation authority that took a systemic approach and ended the infantile (and wasteful) feuding among the Turnpike, Highway Department, MBTA, Regional Transit Authorities, Mystic Bridge, and other transportation agencies.
  • Systemic Transformation:
    • Begin transforming our car-centric, imported fossil-fuel dependent, polluting, obesity-enabling, and increasingly dysfunctional transportation system into something better able to help Massachusetts meet the challenges of the current century.
  • Financial Stability:
    • Ending the funding shortfalls that have left every part of our transportation system unable to maintain current infrastructure, provide appropriate customer service, or meet growing demand.

Under the slogan of “reform before revenue” the final legislation walked away from the revenue issue.  However, within the area of reform the law was very explicit about the need for both organizational unification and systemic transformation.

To their credit, MassDOT’s leaders have been creative and relentless about the first of these challenges.  They are re-inventing MassDOT while keeping everything moving: it’s like repairing an airplane while it is in the air.  And MassDOT appears to be creating a unified organization out of warring factions, creating a culture that stresses customer satisfaction and excellent performance, even creating a hierarchy that engages and values worker involvement.  It is an impressive piece of work requiring state-of-the-art management skills that any cutting-edge corporation would happily spend a fortune to obtain.

But while Secretary Mullan has made the transformative agenda an explicit part of his speeches and policy, it has not been implemented to the same extent as the organizational unification.  To be sure, some degree of transformation emerges out of the successful completion of organizational reform.  However, that is not enough – not just in order to create the type of transportation system we need to survive economically and environmentally, but also in order to lay the foundation for the financial reforms that will ultimately be needed to keep the transportation system functional.

If we are ever to successfully confront the transportation funding crisis, it will only be because the public has come to understand the key role that transportation plays not just in mobility but in personal health, in community well-being, in environmental and climate protection, and in job creation and economic competitiveness.  And doing this requires not simply getting people and things cost-effectively from one place to another.  MassDOT has to be not only excellent but visionary, not only efficient but transformative.  It requires a clear vision of the type of communities and lives we hope to create for ourselves and our children, explicitly describing how each project will move us closer to those goals, and then measuring our progress over time.  MassDOT has to project hope for, and a method of moving towards, a better future.

As part of this, in this time of fiscal constraint it might be smart to begin the transformative process by massively expanding the state’s portfolio of small, lower-cost projects spread out around the state in respond to local initiatives from advocates and municipalities.  These are likely to have a more visible impact on people’s daily lives than most of the large-scale road projects now planned.  And it might be possible to further leverage the impact of these small expenditures by integrating them with existing public programs, such as the Department of Public Health’s Mass In Motion campaign.


Money & Restructuring

Several decades of Republican tax cuts and attacks on the legitimacy (and competency) of government action have left our public sector without either resources or political support.  So it was disappointing, but not surprising, that beyond providing a short-term boost for the MBTA, the Legislature ran away from the funding issue.

In order to avoid any appearance of raising taxes, MassDOT was told to create the money it needed by becoming a leaner, more efficient organization.  The organizational restructuring required by the new law provided the opportunity, and MassDOT leadership seems to be doing a good job.  According to MassDOT leaders, they’ve been able to free up around $100 million by restructuring their debt, moving their employees into cheaper state health insurance programs, some staff reductions, administrative consolidation, and other methods.  But these are all one-time gimmicks and since the total transportation shortfall – simply to bring the existing system up to a “state of good repair” totals many billions of dollars, the state has had to continue borrowing money against future federal aid – which means that we’re not only in a fiscal hole today but we’re going to stay there for decades to come.

Promoting Transformation

Which is why MassDOT has to be not only excellent but visionary, not only efficient but transformative.  And it not only has to work towards this positive vision, it has to be able to measure its progress and the benefits that progress is providing.

What is a transformative investment?  First: public transportation – from rail roads to subways to trolleys, to bus rapid transit, to regular bus lines.  As I’ve written elsewhere, mass transit is the primary alternative to cars.

Second: transit-oriented development (TOD) and smart growth – transportation and land-use are conjoined twins that together shape our built environment: where and how we live, work, shop, and play.  Transforming transportation requires leveraging land-use, so even though development is not one of MassDOT’s core mission, it either needs to find ways to become a player in this field or it has to establish extremely tight linkages with agencies and businesses that are.

Third: complete streets, traffic calming, and active transportation – we’ve got to prioritize walking and bicycling.  Street space is a limited resource and to reverse the historic (and now concretized in road structure) massive favoring of cars we now have to start by providing maximum space for non-motorized travel, especially (but not only) in urban areas and suburban centers.  This means that every project has to start with an explicit statement of the ways it will contribute to desired mode-share changes, reduce pollution and noise, and increasing sustainability.

In addition, the default design process for every road improvement project must be to widen the sidewalk, install bike lanes or separated cycle tracks, then fit cars and parking into the space that’s left.  We can no longer use the vehicular Level of Service (LOS) as the only important measurement of road planning.  And we need to begin drastically rethinking our parking policies – giving so much space away, almost for free, distorts individual decision-making and, ironically, leads to more congestion and less customers at downtown stores.

Current Programs & Opportunities

Getting recognition for being an agent of transformation will not be easy.  No one yet knows the best way to frame this issue for public discussion, and creating change always upsets those with an interest in (or just a neophobic comfort with) the status quo.

To its credit, MassDOT is already doing a lot.  In transit there is the South Coast Railroad project, the CSX agreement around the Worcester lines, the Green Line expansion, the Roxbury-Dorchester-Mattapan study, participation in the regional high-speed rail pilot, the upgrading of MBTA management, and the “flexing” of highway money to pay for some of this.

In TOD the problem is more that there simply isn’t very much development of any kind going on.  The other problem is that these are all big ticket projects.  It seems likely that the continuing anti-tax political environment will allow little new money to come for transportation from the federal government over the next few years.  It appears that the next federal transportation funding bill, whose passage is already a year behind schedule, will take another year or two to complete and is unlikely to provide significant new money for local projects.  Even if it does, Massachusetts has already committed to using much of it’s future federal funds to pay off its old and still growing debt from the Big Dig and beyond.

Since big ticket projects are going to become increasingly scarce, we have to start thinking about how to leverage small ones.  Fortunately, transforming road design practices – actually taking Complete Streets seriously as the core approach of all road work — is a lower cost approach.  Highway Department engineers are beginning to include at least minimal facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists in most project – although they still don’t set quality-of-service or mode share goals for anything other than cars, don’t prioritize non-motorized traffic, and unless pushed they seldom go beyond the most minimal requirements or think through what would be required for a truly bike-friendly or pedestrian-friendly system.

It’s true that we ultimately need a lot more investment in transportation.  But in the meantime, MassDOT needs to push much harder on its road design staff to become leading edge practitioners of the new vision.  It has to find ways to channel more money – but still much less than new construction would cost – to local municipalities to set up Safe Routes To School, Safe Roads for Seniors, and Safe Rides To Stations programs, and more.  A small amount of paint and signage can have a big impact at the local level – assuming that MassDOT can figure out an efficient way to get it there.

Perhaps one approach would be to 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.

And then, MassDOT has to blow its own horn about the healthy, sustainable, prosperous, and friendly Commonwealth it is helping create.

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