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Bold thinking needed to bring Mass. transportation into future

February 06, 2020

Massachusetts consistently overachieves economically: We rank 44th in state size, 15th in population count and yet 11th in GDP. Over the past decade, our population count has increased by 345,000 and the number of jobs has grown by 500,000. The Boston region leads with its diverse economy and leading global presence in a number of major industries, from health care to financial services to academia and advanced manufacturing to name just a few. Our state’s indisputable competitive advantage is our skilled and talented workforce, but this success is spread unevenly across the state and comes with significant mobility and housing challenges. 

Our challenge is how to best nurture all of the growth and economic activity in Greater Boston and at the same time generate enhanced economic activity and job creation throughout the Commonwealth. These goals are not mutually exclusive and depend on our ability to develop and implement a comprehensive transportation network over the next 25 years.

Transportation problems plague every congressional district across Massachusetts. You’ll find our state at the bottom of the rankings lists on infrastructure, road and bridge quality, and commute times. 

What will it take to create the future-ready system that Massachusetts needs? A statewide approach, investment and bold thinking at the federal, state and municipal levels.

A statewide approach means ensuring that residents and workers, regardless of where they live in Massachusetts, have viable public transit options, improved infrastructure conditions and transportation systems that support economic growth.

Regional Transit Authorities, or RTAs, provide public transit for residents outside of the MBTA service area. RTAs need more financial support that can be provided through fees collected on transportation network company rides and making sure that revenue stays in the region where it is collected. More sophisticated management, like collecting economic and demographic data, will allow RTAs to analyze service needs and adjust as necessary.

A statewide economic development strategy that includes addressing the acute housing challenges in eastern Mass requires that we better connect our state’s regions by choosing to begin implementation of one of the most comprehensive electrified commuter rail networks in the U.S.

Today it takes longer to travel on mass transit between Springfield and Boston than it does to travel between Springfield and the capital cities of New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Boston is missing out on the wealth of talent that comes from the cities and towns outside the I-495 beltway. A reliable commuter connection linking Boston, Worcester and Springfield would connect our talent with jobs and our businesses with talent. Reliable, affordable and fast transportation connecting Boston with areas of Massachusetts rich in attractive and affordable housing options is an incredible incentive for developers that also addresses congestion and issues of economic opportunity.

To put it simply, an investment in east-west rail can be transformative for all of Massachusetts.

A federal infrastructure funding bill is crucial to our nation’s success and should be a priority for Congress and the president.

We need to move faster. With the current pace of federal and state investment, Massachusetts won’t reach the Federal Highway and Safety Board standards for bridge safety for another decade. Even with a federal infusion, the Commonwealth’s transportation needs are so enormous that the state must generate its own bold infrastructure funding strategy. A gas tax increase is not a long-term solution. Bold thinking should be easy in a state that’s home to more Nobel Prize winners than most countries. The Greater Boston Chamber’s proposal is to create a private-sector led task force that leverages the Commonwealth’s talent to determine equitable ways to price and generate funding for transportation across the Commonwealth using technology-based solutions to incentivize behavior, reduce congestion, address climate goals and support statewide economic growth.

Let’s continue to overachieve by boldly collaborating, coordinating and compromising as elected leaders, an engaged business community, passionate stakeholders and brilliant problem solvers. Together we can create the transportation system that our entire state needs for its economy and people to thrive.

Congressman Richard Neal is the U.S. representative for Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District and the Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

James E. Rooney is president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Read the full op-ed in the BostonHerald.com.