Browse By

The Treacherous, Twisting Path to Bettering Bay State Infrastructure…

Can this Subway Car unite East & West? (courtesy MBTA via Boston Herald)

Can this Subway Car help unite East & West? (courtesy MBTA via Boston Herald)

CAMBRIDGE—With federal action on climate change frozen, at best, for the next four years, activists in the commonwealth are turning inward for the resources necessary to finance infrastructure improvements, reduce greenhouse gases and support the growth of the Boston area. But with this drive comes a recognition that a statewide pitch is needed to secure the funds.

At a conference held Saturday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, advocates for local initiatives and services and keynote speakers like former Governor Michael Dukakis, outlined the history of such projects and Massachusetts infrastructure generally. There was also discussion of the defense budget’s size and inequities in the region’s transportation system

Representative-elect Michael Connolly, the convivial Bernie Sanders-backed activist who unseated a sitting state rep in the primary, welcomed attendees to the event, “Reviving Federal Investment in Public Transit: Build Subways, Not Submarines.”

Rep-elect Michael Connolly (via Twitter/@mikeconnollyma)

Rep-elect Michael Connolly (via Twitter/@mikeconnollyma)

“Great to see so many people show up on Saturday Morning to talk transit,” said Connolly, who will represent East Cambridge and East Somerville.

Though the aim was directed at realigning federal priorities, organizers and speakers seemed perhaps more interested in what Massachusetts could do on its own to shape its transportation future.

“I think we’re going to have to look to ourselves, just like the people of Los Angeles,” Dukakis said, referring to Los Angelinos’ votes to raise taxes to pay for new public transportation. “Understand that this has got to be a statewide program,” he added.

Both Dukakis and his transportation secretary, Fred Salvucci, highlighted efforts to spread spending around the state. During a transit building spree in Dukakis’ administration, the commonwealth boosted funding for regional transit agencies outside Boston.

“Recognizing it is not all about us is very important,” he said. Salvucci pointed to the inland rail route (which includes East-West rail) connecting New Haven and Boston via Springfield and Worcester. It could benefit those latter cities and relieve pressure from Amtrak’s shoreline route.

Both also praised former Governor Deval Patrick’s successful efforts to locate a railcar plant in Springfield which will build the MBTA’s new cars.

Marc Ebuna from Transit Matters, a pro-transit group in Boston, described the Knowledge Corridor, the rail line running from Springfield to Vermont, and those on Boston’s Fairmount Line, as candidates for “regional rail” service similar to Germany’s S-Bahn.

Los Angeles rail system depicting some future service the county's Measure M is expected to fund. (via wikipedia)

Los Angeles rail system depicting some future service the county’s Measure M is expected to fund. (via wikipedia)

Indeed, Dukakis noted Los Angeles’ infrastructure pushes succeeded because organizers explicitly did not allow projects to be pit against each other.

Local concerns were also aired. State Representative Denise Provost, who also represents Somerville, described the Green Line extension saga, which dates to 1962.

“An injustice on top of a history of injustices,” Provost said of the project’s delays, noting Somerville’s largest landowner, the MBTA, pays no taxes and two highways cut across the cityscape.

Also discussed were Red Line track and signal improvements and reestablishing overnight service, something Transit Matters’ Ebuna said had not fully existed since 1960.

Set in a city often derided as the People’s Republic of Cambridge, it was no surprise speakers and attendees targeted past Republican governors for letting infrastructure to rot while fetishizing tax cuts.

“The fish rots from the head,” Salvucci, an MIT lecturer, said of governors’ failures on infrastructure.

For example, subway cars to be built in Springfield will replace those due for replacement in the 90’s. That process only began a few years ago. Signals and track system wide are in disrepair.

Gov. Charlie Baker in 2014. (WMassP&I)

Gov. Charlie Baker in 2014. (WMassP&I)

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was soundly critiqued. Dukakis panned Baker’s failure to name a permanent general manager and chief of construction for the MBTA. Other speakers claimed Baker’s privatization efforts amounted to little more than corporate cronyism and a recent report questioned his control board’s progress on MBTA absenteeism.

“We’re starving the public realm for investment,” Dukakis said, noting his successors cut state taxes by $3 billion over time. Perennial fears of Republican-led attacks on new revenue have cemented the status quo. But, Dukakis suggested, if Baker agreed to raise revenue, it would sail through the legislature.

On the federal level, most attention was on the $600+ annual defense budget. Mass Peace Action’s John King drew gasps when he described the Pentagon’s $1 trillion upgrades to the nation’s nuclear arsenal, including subs armed with dozens of warheads. Shifting funds to infrastructure would also liberate talent (and political capital) now tied to making weapons of war.

Real estate tycoon and provocateur Donald Trump’s infrastructure push will likely rely on tax credits and privatization. Salvucci observed such efforts may not work well in the Rust Belt as the private sector may see little return on such an investment. Massachusetts could present an alternative by using its wealth to finance projects across in its gateway cities.

“Let’s get serious about making the system work,” Salvucci said. “If we make it work in Massachusetts, maybe we can establish some pathways” the nation can adopt.

Yet transit’s role in battling climate change is also key. With the incoming president denying climate change science, local efforts could be the only serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and potentially arrest rising seas for four years.

Rail produces considerably less carbon dioxide—the principal greenhouse gas emitted when burning fossil fuels—than cars.

“People want this,” Kirstie Pecci of MASSPIRG said of better transportation options.

Buses, while not as efficient, do support “low-carbon forms of land use,” Pecci said. Buses use less space than would the cars needed to transport the same number of people.

Everything comes back to cost, however.

Though the legislature, especially the House, has shown some interest in challenging Baker of late, a major spending spree seems improbable. That is likely to come from the ground up as it did in Los Angeles.

Speakers mentioned the Fair Share amendment, one of the current projects of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition. The state constitutional amendment is moving through the legislature and will likely to appear on ballots in 2018. It would amend the Massachusetts constitution to enact a 4% tax surcharge on incomes over $1 million and could yield hefty sums for transportation and education.

Of course, nothing stops the legislature and Baker from starting well before then.