The state should act quickly on transport plans

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This fall could be a major inflection point – a bridge to a new normal – as some offices reopen after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and summer hours end. Even with the spread of the Delta variant, Greater Boston will continue to see an increase in commuting over the next several months. Traffic jams across the region could create unreasonable conditions for workers, and employers will seek solutions. The State must anticipate the road to follow and adopt innovative solutions to support more efficient, reliable and climate-friendly alternatives to driving.

The strength of Greater Boston’s economy depends on the quality performance of the MBTA to offset road traffic, reduce carbon emissions, and serve transit-dependent communities. Throughout the pandemic, the MBTA has performed reasonably well and will continue to provide cleaner, well-ventilated journeys for all essential passengers and workers. Now, for reasons of business competitiveness and quality of life, transit options must be the most attractive choice for commuters returning to work in person. The entire regional economy will suffer if road traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels or worsens with additional cars on the road.

The MBTA must be ready for this next challenge and should develop additional incentives now to drive demand. Experimenting with public transport fares is an obvious way to welcome T riders this fall. According to recent employee surveys, short-term discounts may be an effective approach to promote fairness and affordability while distracting commuters from driving. The lower prices could also affect new customers who could become regular users in the future.

Many workers will now come to the office on a hybrid work schedule. A monthly transit pass may no longer make sense to them, so the MBTA should create fare options that meet these new office routines. Increasing the flexibility of existing passes or offering reduced fares could mean the difference between driving to work and taking the commuter train. Transportation agencies across the country are already trying short-term unlimited passes, like a three-day pass or temporary promotional fares. The MBTA should heed these ideas to recover and attract runners.

The T got creative when it created a “5-Day Flex Pass” for the commuter train in July 2020, but that option is slated to end on September 15th. Instead, the T is expected to extend the program for six months, consider free parking at commuter train stations, and test new discounts and products through the end of the year.

Temporary changes that influence behavior can work, but this region also needs permanent capital improvements to modernize the system, reduce carbon emissions, and improve service for underserved communities and climate justice. The best hope for more than a generation has come from federal infrastructure plans going through Congress. However, there can be no assurance that major transit projects will take place in Greater Boston, despite our strong federal delegation and historic levels of new infrastructure funding.

A Better City recently released a report that assesses the potential of federal dollars to meet key transport and climate infrastructure needs in the Commonwealth. Biden’s plans are encouraging, but there is cause for concern that Massachusetts and the MBTA are not ready to take advantage of them.

Once the infrastructure bill is passed by Congress, there will be a national competition for federal transportation subsidies. Massachusetts will need to get grants if we are to see action on critical projects like the regional rail vision, climate resilience needs, and large projects with regional economic benefits, like the Interstate 90 Allston interchange. With billions of federal dollars at stake, the Commonwealth is expected to make its plans more attractive to the federal government before the winning projects are chosen.

That would mean advancing design plans now on major transit projects and updating state procurement laws to complete work faster in Massachusetts. Other states are already mobilizing to raise federal funds. We cannot be left behind by other states in this quest for dollars that would benefit the region for the next generation.

Massachusetts must move forward at full speed with all the plans that support our transit system, reduce congestion and grow our economy. Being too conservative could mean congested roads and missed opportunities to meet our greatest infrastructure needs. Workers and communities deserve action and urgency with transport solutions this year, and the Commonwealth cannot afford to see these trains leave the station without us.

Rick Dimino is President and CEO of Better City.

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