The MBTA Report: Reform and Revenue


The Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA is exactly right about a fundamental point: it rejects the ‘reform vs revenue’ debate because “the MBTA needs both.” The report recognizes that Massachusetts requires a strong public transportation system, including increased capacity and expansion.  We need public transit for future economic prosperity, to maximize access to jobs and services, improve quality of life in our communities, and improve our environment.  While we don’t claim insight into whether the panel is right about how to operate a well-managed transit system, it also deserves credit for focusing attention on ways to cost cuts, increase revenue within the system, and improve accountability. We welcome efforts to be more creative and efficient in how we think about public transportation.

Nevertheless, we have reservations about the implications of three important recommendations in the report.  First, from a smart growth perspective, it is short-sighted to make maximizing system revenue our overriding goal. We do not ask our roadways to maximize revenue! Instead, we should be guided by the goal of ensuring that the people of Massachusetts can get where they need to go, safely and efficiently. For example, the panel recommends using “real estate assets strategically,” and we agree. But that does not mean maximizing proceeds from selling T parcels and maximizing parking revenue.  Rather, it means using those assets to bring about the best outcome for Massachusetts.  Transit-oriented development has a multiplier effect in our economy and can be transformative in weaker markets.  Many TOD strategists think that surplus state parcels—including those owned by the MBTA—should be sold at below-market prices in exchange for affordable and middle income housing. In this way we can leverage our transportation system to address our housing crisis. We need to think outside the transportation silo.

Second, we are concerned about the panel’s recommendation that the current fare cap—restricting increases to 5% every two years—be lifted. Fares were raised an average of 23% in 2012, and the fare cap language was adopted in the last transportation reform bill to guard against future dramatic increases. Fares were raised again 5% in 2014. Eliminating the cap would undermine another of the panel’s key recommendations that the MBTA focus more on increasing its ridership. We favor retaining the fare cap, which keeps the T affordable for our low-income residents, which are its core ridership. Finally, with housing prices out of control for many families, riding the T is one of the only ways to make ends meet and reduce costs in Greater Boston. As former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi says, “To ask people to pay more for lousy service before you improve it is just completely wrong.”

Third, while we appreciate the nuanced way in which the panel handled the issue of system expansion, a “temporary moratorium” sends the wrong message and is potentially counter-productive to the state’s economic and smart growth development goals. The panel made the key distinction between increasing system capacity and expansion, wisely recommended that long-term planning proceed, and carved out certain essential expansions like the Green Line extension.  However, if businesses and developers lack confidence that Massachusetts will invest in public transportation, there is risk that they will focus on states that are creating 21st century infrastructure. It is clear that we need to not only fix the transportation system of the 1980s, but create a transportation system for 2030.

We thank the Governor for making public transit a top priority and look forward to a robust debate within the Administration, and within the legislature, on the panel’s recommendations.

Download the MBTA panel report here:

Learn about Transportation for Massachusetts here:

The Route to Growth

April 2, 2015


Yesterday, business leaders and local officials stood behind a new report called The Route to Growth showing that our state’s economic growth depends not only on reforming and modernizing the MBTA, but targeted expansion.

Here’s an example. Merrimack Valley Planning Commission Director Dennis DiZoglio highlighted a segment of the Haverhill commuter rail line where there is only one track, creating a bottleneck for trains. Building double tracks in that location will cost about $35 million, but will instantly double the capacity of the commuter rail line serving a large swath of the Merrimack Valley. That’s expansion, but it’s also a smart investment that leverages our existing system better.

Another recent example: Building a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square cost the state about $29 million but is leveraging private investment of more than a billion dollars and creation of thousands of jobs. That’s smart expansion.

Similarly, the Green Line extension will drive new investment to under-served areas and bring tens of thousands of residents within walking distance of rail. Expansion of South Station seems like another expensive Boston project, until you realize that it is needed to improve rail service throughout New England. There is simply no place to put the trains that need to run through Boston.

More controversially, South Coast Rail is a $2 billion proposed expansion project. Expensive, yes, but it will help connect an entire region of our state to the global economy. Is it worth it? The residents and leaders of Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, and surrounding communities think so.

Perhaps the bigger question is: why do we spend less than 4% of our state budget on transportation ($1.6 billion out of a total $41.4 billion), when it is so key to jobs, housing, the environment, and quality of life?


Read the Report:  The Route to Growth

Losing Ground in Massachusetts: Zoning Reform Can Help

The Boston Globe recently reported on Mass Audubon’s Losing Ground report. This study of development patterns in Massachusetts found that between 2005 and 2013, the Commonwealth lost 13 acres of open space—per day!—to development. That amounts to a loss of nearly 38,000 acres of open space in an eight-year period.

As real estate development picks up in light of our state’s recovery from the recession, it’s likely this loss of land will only increase. Why? Because our state’s current zoning laws make it easier for developers to create low-density sprawl instead of the walkable, vibrant communities with nearby amenities and public transportation in which Massachusetts residents want to live.

But development and conservation of open space don’t have to be at odds with each other. Our zoning laws need to be updated to facilitate smarter growth patterns, from Plymouth to Pittsfield. Sprawl costs our state in so many ways. Infrastructure is more costly to build and maintain in sprawling subdivisions. Public health suffers when residents get around by car instead of by foot, bike, or mass transit. And our environment pays a steep price—from loss of open space to more carbon emissions produced by a car-centric community. There’s currently a bill pending in the Legislature that would incentivize our communities to grow smart and we need your help getting it passed by the legislature this month. Learn more here and contact your legislators to let them know that smart planning is important to your community.

Thank you to Mass Audubon for supporting Zoning Reform in Massachusetts, and for highlighting the cost of sprawl in our state.

Somerville Reforms Zoning and Massachusetts Can Too

In his Boston Globe column today, Paul McMorrow praises the updated and “sane” zoning laws the city of Somerville is set to roll out. The new laws will make it easier for everyday citizens to make modest changes to the triple-decker homes that have been emblematic of Somerville for generations. Somerville Director of Planning George Proakis tells McMorrow, “In residential neighborhoods, it’s a lower threshold to build a new eight-unit building than it is to finish a basement.” Our Great Neighborhoods team has supported the efforts of community partners like Somerville Community Corporation to participate in reforming zoning in Somerville and we applaud the Boston Globe for drawing attention to this important issue.

Somerville’s zoning laws are 20 years old. But our state’s zoning laws have gone nearly twice as long without substantive changes. In most areas of the Commonwealth, it’s easier to build a sprawling subdivision than it is to build vibrant, walkable communities like the much-lauded Assembly Square that McMorrow mentions in his column. That’s why we’re advocating for Zoning Reform legislation at the state level.

An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities” (House Bill 1859) will modernize and streamline the zoning and permitting process across the Commonwealth. It also creates incentives for communities to plan ahead for growth in a way that will attract and retain the residents who will keep Massachusetts thriving for years to come. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has voiced his support for this bill, writing, “All of our communities could do much more with a strategic reform to our state’s development laws.”

Somerville didn’t wait for new investment, housing, and jobs to fall out of the sky. The City and its citizen activists embarked on a hard-fought course of smart planning and zoning years ago. But you can make it easier for cities and towns throughout the state to get better neighborhoods by passing House Bill 4065 right now. Learn more and email your legislators to voice your support for sensible reform.