With gas prices heading up as the value of the dollar heads down, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority flailing about in vain for neoclassical economic solutions to its growing austerity-induced budget problems, and that same authority's "stem to stern" review of the Ted Williams Tunnel determining that it is not possible to stop it from leaking permanently, it seems like a good moment to call for a progressive transportation plan for the Commonwealth.
This state has quite a dense network of governmental and quasi-governmental transportation planning bodies like the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council, public-private transportation partnerships like MassCommute, transportation advocacy groups like MassBike, and environmental justice organizations like Alternatives for Community and Environment, and Bikes Not Bombs. What it doesn't seem to have is the political will to face up to the looming crises with energy, the environment, and the economy (we'll call them "the 3 Es") that speak directly to the need for immediate action to repurpose our transportation system to be carbon-free, ecologically sustainable, and financially sound - or to work on a statewide master plan that takes all these elements into account.
Massachusetts doesn't even have a state Division of Transportation. Instead it has an Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works - which oversees several largely independent agencies and authorities, including the Mass. Bay Transportation Authority, Mass. Highway Authority, and the Mass. Turnpike Authority. The EOT is pursuing a number of transportation projects under its own auspices - most of which relate to public transportation in Eastern Massachusetts, and are a mixed bag in terms of addressing the "3 Es" mentioned above. They also have a Statewide Planning section that works with all the state's regional planning authorities and conducts local research studies almost entirely focused on fossil fuel-burning vehicle transportation and highways.
The legislature has a Joint Committee on Transportation, but most of its seats are filled by suburban legislators and much of its current business relates to roads and bridges - and therefore car-based transportation, much of it locally focused.
The only governmental body that looks to be involved in statewide transportation planning on an ongoing basis is the another section of the EOT, the Mass. Transportation Finance Commission - created under Republican Governor Mitt Romney and stacked with corporations, corporate law firms, and corporate-backed advocacy groups like the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation.
Predictably, the concerns addressed in their 2007 report are not about much else than pushing fiscally conservative accounting strategies and squeezing public mass transportation agencies into insolvency - the better to allow more privatizing drives, public union busting, mass transit fare increases, gas tax rises, and continuing to favor cars over ecological alternatives.
In other words, anything that places more pressure on working people and allows corporations to get more control over mass transportation policy is good. Any public solutions that demand anything (like funding genuine transportation reform via progressive taxation) out of corporations and the rich is bad. No surprises there.
Unfortunately, most of the existing planning and advocacy groups push tepid reforms calling for traffic calming in urban areas, more bike paths, better pedestrian accommodations, and the like. Many mention the environmental problems caused by fossil fuel-based transportation systems and further call for car-pooling, van-pooling and so on. Few of these organizations call for major changes to patterns of urban and suburban development in Massachusetts. Or for serious moves away from vehicles that burn gasoline, diesel or liquefied natural gas. Those that do tend to focus on one slice of transportation to the exclusion of all the others.
That's a pity because unless broad transportation reform replaces narrow ones as the order of the day, we're facing a transportation catastrophe over the next 3 decades that - together with several other related catastrophe - will spell the end of our current way of life in the Bay State.
The big problems that need to be addressed are
*Unsustainable suburban sprawl putting more and more families out of reach of public transportation.
*Serious ecological damage caused by carbon-burning cars and trucks, plus a vastly overbuilt road network.
*Rising fuel prices likely to climax in an abrupt crash of oil and gas reserves.
*Ongoing transportation injustice that keeps people in poor neighborhoods who can't afford cars from being able to get to work or school easily, and keeps public transportation agencies from building out properly to meet those neighborhoods' transportation needs.
*Corporate influence in the political system - especially by the "highway lobby" that includes the automobile-manufacturing and energy industries - and most particularly over taxation and spending policies for needed public services.
Fully addressing these problems will require a national and global effort that just isn't forthcoming in the current political situation - although needed efforts are much farther along in many other industrialized nations than in the energy-industry dominated U.S.
But that's no excuse for inaction at home. So just to outline a maximum program for Massachusetts, let's say that any serious transportation plan should include calls to
*Move back to region-wide rail and trolley systems that reach every significant city, town, and neighborhood.
*Encourage the use of human-powered transportation wherever possible (e.g., bikes).
*Replace diesel and gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles (and possibly hydrogen powered vehicles depending on how the hydrogen is produced).
*Reduce our existing asphalt and concrete-topped road network down to the minimum possible, and return the freed-up public lands to other public development goals.
*Replace carbon-based power plants with non-carbon alternatives like wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal.
*Sequester existing byproducts of carbon-based energy systems using the best technology available.
*Move toward dense and distributed urban development - for example, a "garden cities" approach where we'd work towards constructing small, walkable, densely developed, pedestrian cities surrounded by farmland and conservation areas connected by regular intercity rail service.
*Move to a fully progressive taxation system - forcing corporations and the rich to pay their fair share for the needed reforms.
These proposals and other that would spring from them would almost certainly result in the end of the suburbs. But that end is coming soon anyway. Overlarge homes built in giant developments near or over critical watersheds, arboreal land and estuaries - each occupied by one family and requiring two or more individually owned vehicles to keep supplied and connected with the rest of society - will not outlast the unregulated upward spiral in fuel prices. Or the coming crash of the fuel supply as the world taps the last easily reachable sources of fossil fuels.
Better to start making necessary reforms now, and be glad of having dealt with some discomfit early on, than to do nothing real now, and have everything fall apart in the near future.
We'd definitely like to hear from experts on this important issue. And we'd like to encourage the formation of a major coalition for a progressive Massachusetts transportation policy now. Open Media Boston will happily help publicize and popularize such an effort, and will certainly participate in it, too. We will not, however, make any suggestions at this time as to what kind of political apparatus would be needed to enact any of the proposed reforms. That topic will need to be the subject of much more discussion. As will all of the policy proposals.
If such a statewide group of progressive urban planners, transportation specialists and community advocates should come together, we'd love to hear about it. The Tellus Institute in downtown Boston continues to do some big thinking with their scenario planning - most recently in a report they submitted to the EPA entitled "Contours of the Future: Alternative Scenarios for the Boston Region, and we're sure there are other groups we're unaware of, but it seems like all these disparate efforts need to come together and make a big push as soon as possible.
We hate to overstate things, but we truly believe that our future as a democratic society may depend on it.