Transportation in all its forms – road, rail, bus, pedestrian and bicycle – is intricately tied to the economic development of the Berkshires. But, stuck in the 1950′s, the Berkshires has become a transportation backwater. Business does not relocate to places where they have to take two steps backwards, and the Berkshires have been on the losing end of new employment possibilities because of it. Successful cities have great transportation, excellent mobile phone and internet coverage, and inexpensive space for expansion. The Berkshires only score high on one of these.
Peter Pan and Amtrak
Most of the county is relatively isolated from the Interstate Highway System, rail service other than the once a day Amtrak Lake Shore Limited run, and forced to live with the antiquated Peter Pan/Bonanza bus system, a company that has strenuously lobbied against any and all alternatives so as to maintain its turtle-paced schedule where every bus takes at least twice as long to get to Boston as does a car. They killed a plan for a bus from North Adams to Boston, and an express service that would run from campus to city. They are a monopoly that has no idea what the potential is for fast, efficient transportation between the Berkshires and New York, Albany and Boston.
The end result is that it is not possible to use public transportation to get to Boston or New York City and back on the same day for errands, visiting friends or a medical appointment. It used to be easy to do.
The BRTA – Great in the Day, Dead at night and on Sunday
The Berkshire Rapid Transit Authority with a county-wide bus system has seen ridership increase over recent years, often with standing room only on their buses, yet the system shuts down around 6pm and does not operate evenings or weekends, thereby depriving residents of the ability to get to church, the theatre, or shopping other than mid-day when most people are working.
The need for decent alternatives to the automobile-dependent Berkshires is more pressing than ever, and since the Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript are unlikely to devote this much space to the new initiatives being proposed by Governor Patrick and the State Department of Treansportation, they are presented here, in Berkshire on Stage, since expansion of the options available to the public coupled with upgrades to the infrastructure will benefit the county, and might even reverse the outflow of people who leave its isolated interior for cities and towns with 21st Century transportation options, not roads that mostly date back to the mid 1900′s.
Gov. Patrick to say more during State of the State Address
It is expected that the cost of the statewide transportation program will be in the vicinity of $13 Billion dollars over ten years, and the Governor will likely make his case for this at his State of the State address on January 16. The Governor has been tweeting about the options, “What the public wants – a modern, convenient network – & what the state need – accelerated, sustained economic growth – are exactly aligned. I accept the Plan the Board has presented & welcome debate on how we make this vision of a 21st century transportation network a reality.”
Taxes on Gas?
Financing a transportation network that is worthy of the demands of the 21st century won’t be easy, given the public’s distaste for government spending.
The 15 regional transit authorities that serve 256 communities face significant deficit and a repair backlog totaling $150 million. And they only receive a third of the funding the MBTA receives from the state.
More than 400 bridges are structurally unsound across the commonwealth, many in the western part of the state.
Current funding mechanisms – the state income tax, a gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1991, are targeted, especially since sales tax revenues and federal funding have not kept up with the state’s pressing needs. The Federal cuts already sustained have hurt the most. Republicans in Congress are anti-public transportation, urban development and anything that undercuts the profits of the energy companies. We must fend for ourselves.
Massachusetts has had to borrow just to keep the current overcrowded transportation system functioning and in the end that costs $1.75 for every dollar borrowed. Pay now or pay much more later seems to be the only two options. The trend is to more use of public transportation, and that is essential to keep our roads from clogging up. Routes 7 and 8 on a summer afternoon can be a nightmare.
Should a gasoline tax be instituted, and the local dollars derived be mandated to be spent in the county in which they are raised, the Berkshires could be a big winner. While not calculated with precision, I estimate that half the gasoline purchased in the Berkshires is bought by visitors, summer and winter travelers alike. It could be a way to quietly get those who come to the Berkshires for culture, skiing and recreation to pay their fair share of maintaining our roads, while providing them with alternative transportation options.
Following is an overview of the proposals just being outlined by the Governor and the Commonwealth. The proposals will need to be fully discussed and public input gained before actually making some version of these ideas a reality. Let us begin.
The MassDOT Board and Transportation Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey today announced a plan for the next generation of transportation investment in the Commonwealth:The Way Forward: A 21st Century Transportation Plan.
The long-term financing plan shows that the state needs $684 million to operate the same system we have today. The plan calls for an additional investment in our transportation assets of $5.2 billion over ten years in road and highway repair in order to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges and ease congestion on major arteries throughout the state; $3.8 billion to invest in existing transit services; and $275 million for Registry and airport maintenance. These investments responsibly maintain the current transportation assets we have today.
In addition, the plan identifies a number of high-impact transportation projects across Massachusetts that, if built, will create thousands of jobs and spur economic development across the Commonwealth. In all, the plan identifies a $1.02 billion average additional need each year to create a 21st-Century transportation network.
“The plan released today is a stark, clear-eyed, non-partisan presentation of the facts,” said Governor Deval Patrick. “If we are serious about improving our transportation system for a generation, then we have to be willing to make the necessary investments. We must invest in transportation, not for the sake of transportation itself, but for the jobs and economic opportunity it creates.”
“Transportation is the enabling network of our economy, creating and supporting jobs in all regions of the Commonwealth,” said Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray. “The MassDOT Board has outlined how far we’ve come and how far we have to go to ensure a safe, reliable and regionally equitable transportation network. Now we all need to work together to make this vision a reality.”
The plan addresses systemic budget deficits at the MBTA, MassDOT and the 15 Regional Transit Authorities, much of which has been caused by the debt burden related to the Central Artery.
“We have spent the last year engaging our customers, the business community and various stakeholders in a conversation about what kind of transportation system they want,” said MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard A. Davey. “What is clear is that we can’t afford the system we have today, much less the system we all want. This plan clearly articulates our vision for a 21st-Century Transportation system and the steps we must take to achieves that.”
Additional operating needs include:
MassDOT – $371 million in FY14; $4.4 billion over 10 years
The proposed new funding will allow MassDOT to end the decades-long practice of funding operating costs – personnel, rent, utilities, lawn mowing, etc – with borrowed funds. Currently, for every dollar MassDOT spends today on these items, it pays $1.76 in principal and interest costs. Appropriately paying for these items with operating funds will save the Commonwealth money over time and free up capital dollars to invest in infrastructure improvements.
The additional funding will also allow MassDOT to sufficiently fund its snow and ice operations at an appropriate level based on the average five-year cost and support and maintain its new capital investments.
Regional Transit Authorities — $100 million in FY14; $1.1 billion over 10 years
This additional investment will allow the RTA’s to end the practice of borrowing, with interest costs, to fund annual operating costs by instead forward-funding each agency. Beginning in FY15, the additional $100 million will be used to expand RTA service by adding hours of operation, increasing frequency on existing routes and adding new service.
MBTA – $166 million in FY14; $3.2 billion over 10 years
This new investment will allow the MBTA to close its current and projected budget deficits, much of which is caused by the debt burden related to the Central Artery public transit commitments. Beginning in FY2014, $25 million in annual operating funds will also be available to provide modest service enhancements such as possibly expanding evening hours, restoring weekend service in areas that have been cut and improved customer service.
In addition to responsibly paying for our daily operations, the 21st-Century Plan calls for a $13 billion infusion of capital investment funds. These funds, which would supplement the Administration’s current capital investment plans, will allow MassDOT to address a backlog of deferred maintenance and improve current assets in order to reduce congestion on our roads, curb delays and minimize crowding on our trains and buses and improve customer service at our facilities.
In 2007, the Transportation Finance Commission issued a report pegging our maintenance funding gap at $15 billion to $19 billion over 20 years. The investment proposed in the 21st-Century Plan is an aggressive plan to eliminate that backlog.
The list of investments over 10 years is available after the break.
Bridge program ($1.175 billion) – Funds a new targeted program modeled after the successful Accelerated Bridge Program (which ends in 2016) to accelerate repair to local bridges and complete several larger bridges.
Multimodal Highway Program ($1.25 billion) – Funds a statewide portfolio of local and regional projects designed to improve safety, reduce the number of high crash locations and reduce congestion. This also includes $250 million for the transportation assets owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
Highway Preservation Facilities & Systems ($400 million) – Targeted funding for a municipal small bottlenecks program; safety and operational improvements at depots; deployment of roadside traffic and travel information; equipment procurements and completion of an integrated asset management system.
Bicycle & Pedestrian Facilities ($430 million) — Dedicated funding to construct and improve bicycle and pedestrian facilities owned and managed by MassDOT and DCR.
RTA Vehicles ($400 million) — Funds a 10-year program to replace regional buses that have exceeded their useful life, add buses for expanded service and support replacement of other equipment and facility upgrades, resulting in fewer delays and improved reliability.
New MBTA Red and Orange Line Cars ($1.5 billion) – Funds the replacement of 43-year-old Red Line cars and 31-year-old Orange Line cars as well as improvements to tracks, signals and systems. The new cars and system upgrade will result in faster and less crowded commutes. The cars will be made in Massachusetts, supporting the local economy.
Red Line Car #3 Overhaul ($200 million) – Overhauls the newest Red Line cars, which are nearly 20 years old.
Green Line Cars ($732 million) – Funds new Green Line cars and system improvements, reducing wait times and allowing for more 3-car trains that enable increased passenger capacity. The cars will be made in Massachusetts, supporting the local economy.
MBTA Buses ($450 million) – Accelerates a 10-year program to replace buses that have exceeded their useful life, increasing capacity and reducing breakdowns.
MBTA Power Facilities & Operations ($300 million) – Funds critical upgrades to decades-old electrical service, fuel systems, water pumps, track, tunnel and other infrastructure that is essential for the timely operation of trains and buses. Coupled with new subway vehicles trips will be faster and more reliable.
Aeronautics ($125 million) – Addresses maintenance and safety improvements at our general aviation airports. These investments will help support jobs in the aviation industry.
Registry of Motor Vehicles ($150 million) – Funding to allow for the consolidation of current registry branches into new regional super centers; development and installation of self-service kiosks at retail and municipal centers for customer convenience.
Modernization Pilot Projects ($200 million) – Funds the piloting of Bus Rapid Transit and Diesel Multiple Unit services. These innovative transit options would increase mobility for residents expand business and economic opportunities.
The Patrick-Murray Administration has made targeted infrastructure investment a cornerstone of its economic development efforts. Current projects like Assembly Square Station, Wonderland Garage and Brighton Landing are leveraging major new development projects that include new housing units, office and retail and space and creating new jobs.
Recognizing the link between investments like those and a strong economy and job growth, the plan also allows for targeted expansion projects across the state. These expansions focus on areas of the state where opportunity is constrained by substandard service or by lack of access. Projects include:
South Coast Rail ($1.8 billion) – Completion of the South Coast Rail Line with diesel-fueled commuter trains to connect Boston to Fall River and New Bedford. This results in greater mobility for South Coast residents and less congestion on Route 24. The project is expected to create 3,800 jobs and generate $500 million in new economic activity statewide annually.
Green Line Extension ($674 million) – Extension of the current Green Line from relocated Lechmere station in Cambridge to College Avenue in Medford, fulfilling a commitment made during the construction of the Central Artery Project and unlocking new economic opportunity in the region.
South Station Expansion ($850 million) – Design and construction, within 10 years, of an expanded South Station that will accommodate future passenger rail growth for the existing commuter rail system, South Coast rail, Amtrack, Worcester to Springfield rail and future high-speed service to Montreal. The expansion will also allow for additional rush hour service.
Rail in Western Massachusetts
Rail between Springfield and Boston ($362.4 million) –Passenger rail service directly connecting Boston with Springfield via what is known commonly as the Inland Route. Funding will cover rehabilitation along the route, creating a second track, widening bridges, upgrading signals purchasing train equipment, and constructing or rehabilitating stations. This will also support future high-speed rail connection to New York City via Springfield.
Berkshires to NYC Rail ($113.8 million) – Rehabilitation of track, signals and structures between Pittsfield and the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line to support future rail service between Pittsfield and New York City. The current line is served by freight carriers and is not up to standards necessary for commuter service.
Rail to Cape Cod ($20.8 million) – Seasonal service on weekends between Boston and Hyannis. Upgrades rail, grade crossings, bridges and station accessibility. Service during the summer season will connect a key tourist destination with Boston.
The 21st-Century Transportation Plan follows the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, which significantly altered the way our transportation system functions. Through that reform, MassDOT has saved more than $500 million through internal consolidations and efficiencies and employee benefit changes, improved its business practices, and enhanced customer service through the greater use of technology.
The plan identifies other potential reforms MassDOT is exploring including a move to all-electronic tolling on the MassPike and other tolled assets; modernization of Registry of Motor Vehicles services; greater Performance Management to measure progress and identify areas of improvement; a fully-integrated asset management system, further MBTA retirement changes; and additional partnership opportunities with the Massachusetts Port Authority. These reforms would help MassDOT improve the customer experience and address a portion of the $1.02 billion in additional revenue needed each year.
However, the report also acknowledges the need for additional revenue to meet its ambitious goals. Included in the plan are suggested revenue options proposed by members of the public and other stakeholders over the last year.
Those recommendations include an increase in the gas tax, payroll tax, sales tax or income tax; a new green fee on vehicle registrations; a vehicle miles traveled tax; regular and modest fare, fee and toll increases; and new tolling mechanisms. The plan also assumes that tolls are maintained on the Western portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Without new revenues, the MassDOT Board of Directors will need to cut service at the MBTA and RTAs and significantly increase fares in order to approve a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins July 1.
We think that road tolls are the best way to increase revenue and to reduce congestion on the major roadways. While most drivers rebel at the idea of tolls, when they improve travel times, the resistance melts. Many call for the elimination of Mass Pike tolls, but the end result of such a move would be to make it as congested as the Southeast Expressway, Routes 1 and 93 into Boston. As it is the Pike experiences rush hour congestion, and frequent snarls from its overuse. If anything, the Pike tolls should be increased during peak times between Springfield and Boston, and bridge and tunnel fees increased during rush hours as well. What happens in these cases is that people think twice about the need to make a trip during peak times. And these funds should be earmarked for the new transit initiatives in this plan.
Those who insist on driving in cars alone – which is most of us – should pay for the roads they use and the transit operations that keep their highways from becoming gridlocked. Make no mistake, without the MBTA, bus, rail and water transit, commuters and travelers would spend twice as long getting where they are going.
If the Big Dig had been undertaken with tolls put in place following its completion, it would have addressed a major traffic issue in and out of Boston. The Big Dig will ultimately cost $22 billion, including interest, and that it will not be paid off until 2038. Of course, the cost overruns and expense had people up in arms, but consider this: the ten year plan being proposed by the Governor for the whole state is half that, $13 billion, and it covers the next decade. It not only fixes many existing problems, it also paves the way to the future.
While the details and priorities will be debated, the thrust of this effort is not really debatable. It is essential for the the future of the Commonwealth in general, and Western Massachusetts in particular.
Now, let’s figure out how to pay for it.