Traffic and Transit Forum Grapples with Tough Issues

by Mike Connolly and Jonathan King

_MG_0652.jpgMore than 80 local residents gathered at the Central Square Senior Center April 30 to participate in a timely forum, “Solving Traffic and Transit Problems in the Cambridge Corridor.”

The forum, hosted by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, Mass Budget for All Coalition, Fresh Pond Residents Alliance, Green Cambridge, and other groups, focused on how investments, expansion, and upgrades to our transit system have failed to keep up with rapidly growing commercial and residential development in Cambridge and the surrounding metro area. As the panelists documented, this crunch is true for the Red Line, bus services, auto and truck traffic, and even cycling.

The panels included some of the state’s leading transit and passenger advocates, as well as elected representatives concerned about the issue. The panelists engaged in a candid and fruitful discussion. Participants also met with each other in small groups to identify their major concerns and suggestions.

Transit and Traffic Needs

After an introduction by program chair Mike Connolly and a warm welcome from Mayor E. Denise Simmons, State Senator Pat_MG_0625_copy.jpg Jehlen  (photo right) explained how public transit service and expansion has been severely compromised after decades of massive underinvestment. Senator Jehlen made clear that the primary focus should be on raising revenue to address a $7 billion maintenance backlog, and she also stressed that Gov. Baker is wrong to think that we can catch up on the backlog of investment through “reform alone.”

City Councilor Dennis Carlone said, “Beauty, joy, and harmony are three words never said at public meetings,” and he encouraged “thinking about the broader picture.” To that end, he noted the necessity of integrating transit improvements with new building construction in order to maintain the livability of the community. The lack of such coordination in the past has led to cases of severe and increasing congestion, such as that in the Alewife Parkway / Route 2 area, described by City Councilor Jan Devereux. Devereux pointed out that the problems are not due to a lack of study, but rather, inadequate regional cooperation and inadequate regional and state funding.

Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation gave an overview of the shortfalls in investment for the coming years, revealed in the current MBTA’s and Department of Transportation’s (DOT) capital investment budgets. The full report is available here.

Though the plan includes 2800 projects over next 5 years, another 6,000 projects identified as needed won’t be funded. Ten are listed for Cambridge, but twenty other Cambridge projects are left unfunded. As Rafael noted, if the blanket is too small to start with, pulling it one way just leaves another part uncovered. Though 66 Green Line Cars are at the end of their useful lifetimes, there are no funds for new cars. This is also true for aging Red Line and Orange Line cars. Also unfunded are: the South Coast rail service connecting Boston to New Bedford; Boston to Springfield passenger trains; and a much needed maintenance facility for the Pioneer Valley.

_MG_0973.jpgMares and Elechi Kadete (photo left), speaking about the needs of young people, pointed out that the close to 10% MBTA fare increase, coupled with reduced service, falls heavily on the youth. Thousands of students need the T to get to and from school; and late night service cuts also disproportionately affect young riders. “We’re not increasing equity, not actually solving problems,” Mares said.          

Kirstie Pecci of the Massachusetts Public Interest Group (MassPIRG) and Steven Miller of Livable Streets described the many ways the current transportation system – still focused on private auto use – is damaging to the environment and is harmful to public health.

Miller focused on the need to “make streets safe for everyone,” and advocated for adoption of Vision Zero principles, which seek to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries in road traffic. Meanwhile, Pecci discussed MassPIRG’s recent report that documented how decreasing car miles 1% over the next fifteen years would bring $15 billion in savings to citizens and their communities.

She made it clear that, given the threat from global warming driven by combustion emissions, the state needs to plan for a 50-year horizon, if we are to achieve carbon neutrality. “The transportation system we have now is incredibly harmful to the environment and health,” Pecci said. “We have to think big because Governor Baker is focused on reform, on the small stuff,” she added.

John Attanucci of MIT’s Transit group, who serves on the 20-member Cambridge Transit Advisory Committee, described in some detail the needs of the Red Line and buses.  These components of public transit have experienced a 30% increase in usage since 1990, with no increase in capacity. The Red Line is the most efficient component of the MBTA system, with a subsidy of less than 50 cents per passenger, while the commuter rail, for example, requires a subsidy of $5 per passenger.

Attanucci described the integral relationship among the cars, signaling systems, and power supplies of the Red Line, such that a serious upgrade in service would require new versions of all three. Though this would be an optimally efficient transit investment, the money required is not in current budgets. He called for improving headways from 4.5 minutes to 3 minutes for the Red Line, and for priority bus lanes and priority signals in most heavily used bus routes.

Solutions:

Almost all panelists noted that the root problem is inadequate investment and a lack of revenue. Two panelists offered solutions. John Ratliff described the RaiseUp Coalition’s Fair Share campaign, which has collected over 65,000 signatures to initiate a ballot question in November, 2018. The Fair Share proposal, which requires an amendment to the state constitution, would add an additional 4% tax to annual incomes over $1 million (about 3,000 to 4,000 state taxpayers). The additional revenue of more than $1 billion would be dedicated to public transit and public education. (That said, it should be noted that overall, the state budget is some $3.3 billion less than it was on an annual basis circa the year 2001, when adjusted for inflation.)       

Jonathan King pointed out that the major progress in Massachusetts transportation had depended on federal funding, including the Red Line, and that this largest pool of capital was left out of the current city and state debates. He showed the distribution of income tax dollars in last year’s Congressional budget, more than half of which, $625 billion dollars, was devoted to Pentagon spending and weapons contracts. Congress financed the $625 billion in large part by cutting investments in domestic needs such as transportation, housing, environmental protection, and other essential programs. King called for “building subways not submarines.” He showed that maintaining our current 14 nuclear weapons submarines – vast overkill – rather than spending $100 billion to build twelve new nuclear missiles submarines, would free up far more money than was needed to upgrade public transit nationally. Boston’s share of these savings would comfortably provide the  $150 million needed for new Red Line cars, signaling systems and power supplies.        

Mike Connolly, Nancy Ryan and Torgun Austin played valuable roles chairing panels. The forum was organized by a Program Committee of Torgun Austin, Mike Connolly (chair), Jonathan King, John MacDougall, John Ratliff and was co-sponsored by the Cambridge Residents Alliance, Mass Budget for All Coalition, Green Cambridge, 350MA, and Fresh Pond Residents Alliance. Thanks also to those who chaired the table discussions.

Readers who would like to participate in the continuing work of the Transit and Traffic Committee can e-mail keepcambridgelivable@gmail.com to express your interest.

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