Wednesday, April 10, 2013

This week in transportation funding

This week is big for transportation funding in the Commonwealth. The state senate and the state house will be discussing the legislature's proposal for funding that was offered in opposition to the Governor's plan, "The Way Forward." Presumably they will be coming up with a plan going forward to close the operating deficits of both the highway and transit divisions of MassDOT, as well as finding funds for some capital improvement projects; although the details of those projects may be determined later.

Plenty has already been written about the competing plans, and there's even a Walk/Bike Summit at the State House tomorrow. Obviously, I support fixes to the broken state of MBTA funding, and improvements to walking, bicycling and transit state-wide. So I'm largely in favor of the Governor's plan, although with the notable exception of South Coast Rail. Also, I have a problem with the way Chapter 90 road funds are handed out, because it favors rural parts of the state disproportionately. And I do like the legislative plan to index the gas tax to inflation.

I just wanted to bring up the fact that throughout this discussion, there's been pretty much no attention paid towards land use planning in conjunction with transportation planning. There's been separate initiatives, like Menino's Housing Boston 2020, but for some reason there's a disconnect between that and transit planning. This is not to say that there aren't people out there thinking about them in conjunction; there are, such as MAPC and MA-SmartGrowth. But the connection doesn't seem to have made the leap to the legislature.

I'll give an example: the Green Line extension is a legally-mandated Big Dig mitigation project. The current proposal before the legislature endangers the Federal funding support, which would double the cost that the Commonwealth has to bear. This is exceptionally short-sighted. But it's even more short-sighted when you realize that the Green Line extension, in combination with McGrath Highway grounding, will completely revitalize and regenerate a whole section of Somerville that is currently in bad shape. That's a whole lot of benefits -- housing, business, quality of life, revenue -- which are simply not being considered by the legislature when making tunnel-vision decisions about transportation alone.

Now it's true that legislators probably do have some of this in their head while working on the bill. At least, I hope so. And Somerville has their SomerVision plan which lays out their intentions. But it should be part of the bill. We the taxpayers, the citizens of the Commonwealth, are going to invest in transportation improvements for certain areas (not just Somerville, of course). In return, we want something for that investment. We want more housing units, more jobs, more opportunities, in some combination and form, all of which leverages this transportation investment we are making.

I say this because we've seen large transportation projects completed in the past which did not see complementary development, and thus wasted their potential.

Across the street from Roxbury Crossing MBTA station
The Southwest Corridor is one of the most egregious examples. A large swathe of Roxbury was destroyed to clear a path for the never-built Inner Belt and Southwest Expressways. And then, instead, the Orange Line was relocated to that path. But then, for the past few decades, so much of the land has remained vacant and empty.

There's also the long stretches of Commonwealth Avenue which are devoted to low intensity uses like automobile body shops and parking lots, despite being Green Line adjacent. Or the empty vistas immediately adjacent to Maverick Square station, apparently owned by MassPort but lying fallow. Or the billions of dollars spent on Commuter Rail expansion which ultimately ended up being a glorified parking lot shuttle. The Big Dig remains a large question mark; will we ultimately see development along the former corridor, or will it remain the world's most expensive median strip?

So I hope that funding levels will be higher than the current legislative proposal. But I also hope that when it comes time to evaluate the different projects, that the disbursement of the funds will be contingent on local land use and zoning reforms which will make it worthwhile.

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