Addressing the Core Transit Issue

Great point about prices being jacked up for T and commuter rail riders - especially those at the outer ends of the lines -- vs. gas tax. Transit is transit: A person riding the train is staying out of traffic for drivers. - promoted by charley-on-the-mta

(Cross-posted in LiL.)

I was watching local news this morning and they had a segment on Governor Patrick’s and MassDOT’s new transportation plan (pdf). I think I owe the Governor a small apology as the things listed prominently as revenue sources for addressing the structural deficits, crumbing infrastructure, and needed transportation investments included MBTA fee hikes. I was all set to write a huffy blog post about that, and I will get to that in a minute, but it appears that the mention of MBTA fee increases is modest, if anything, in the actual report, so now I’m a little miffed at Channel 7 instead.

Since that early report, I have heard the Governor on WBUR on my way into work (audio not up yet) and read some online articles like on and skimmed the revenue section of the report itself (as linked above). I have to say, the plan/report takes the situation pretty head on and has a very wide net in its revenue suggestions. And the report is not Boston-centric; although of course most of the public transit is in the Boston area, there is a call for a Boston-Springfield line (long overdue) and other projects.

The report is also pretty harsh on the nonaction the state has taken thus far to address the problems that forcing the MBTA into terrible structural deficits – otherwise known as forward funding and putting Big Dig debt on its books at the same time:

At the time, the Central Artery project – the ‘Big Dig’ – was incomplete and faced a significant shortfall in funding. Federal dollars were at risk as state bond authorizations for projects under construction were running out. At the same time, a risky financial transaction entered into by a prior administration, termed a ‘swaption,’ was coming due with a required payment of $263 million that, without a solution, would have resulted in a toll increase for the Boston Harbor tunnels to a total of $7 and an increase to $2 at the Allston and Weston tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Bonds at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority faced default and the Commonwealth’s credit rating was at risk of being downgraded. The MBTA and the Commonwealth’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities faced budget deficits and the need for fare increases and service cuts, while subway, bus, and commuter rail riders were experiencing increasing delays and chronically unreliable and inadequate service.

Of course, the plan goes on to have a lot of examples of things the current administration has done right about reforming the system – praise that I do think is actually well deserved and earned. Saving our collective asses on the swaption issue alone ought to put Patrick in the good graces of all the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, nevermind the streamlining of agencies and the investments he lead with our portions of federal stimulus money.

The report is well worth a read (which I will do thoroughly at a later date).

This plan addresses every possible avenue of revenues to help curtail the structural deficits of the system, and has bold but modest new proposals to modernize and extend our transit infrastructure. So far props from me. I do have one concern, however, and that is that we stop ruining the one thing we really had going for us, before crushing debt and forward funding destroyed it – and that was a cheap (to the end user) public transit system.

Since the Mr. has now been commuting from Lowell to Boston for around a decade, I feel we have a lot of personal experience with the Commuter Rail and the MBTA system. And the thing I’ve noticed the most is the pretty incredible increases in the cost of riding the rail and the T.

In this warming, crowded world, we ought to be encouraging people to take public transit. Let me give you a real world example. I’m looking for a real, permanent full time job. In my industry (web/graphics/interactive design) there’s a high probability that’ll wind up being in Boston. That would mean both myself and the Mr. would be commuting to Boston together.

A monthly pass for Zone 6 of the Commuter Rail is now $275. That means a total of $550/month if we were both to take the train. That’s a serious chunk of change. Suddenly, for two people commuting, a car is looking like a much better deal. That means putting our car on the road, polluting CO2 into the air and clogging up the already-clogged highways. We’d likely commute to one of the endpoints of the T and take that in, but that’s still a car on the road that doesn’t need to be (we live right around the corner from the train station for heaven’s sake!). Granted, then we’d be subject to the whims of traffic, or have to leave ungodly-early to avoid such, and there are benefits to having a nice hands-free leisurely ride into Boston (like when a book addict owns a Kindle) but still. The financial incentive for taking the train is getting worse all the time.

The MBTA/Commuter Rail has been hiked up enough already. The gas tax? Not since 1991. If the Commonwealth were smart, it’d freeze MBTA hikes for a while. It has gone up at least $40-50 a month in a very short timeframe. Encourage green and efficient travel – don’t raise the fares.


43 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Automobile subidies MUST STOP!

    Thank you for writing this.

    It should take only ONE LOOK at I-93 south on ANY weekday morning, north on any weekday evening, to see the lunacy of our current approach. Every morning, this three (and sometimes four) lane highway is stopped cold — literally a parking lot — from Boston all the way to Route 128 and beyond.

    Our automobile subsidies are destroying our cities and towns, destroying our environment, literally killing our progeny, and still we continue them. The Green Line extension and North/South Station link was required by the Big Dig project approvals from the very start — and still haven’t even been FUNDED, never mind completed, more than five years after the Big Dig was finished.

    Similarly, the state of NH agreed to extend commuter rail service from Lowell all the way to Concord NH in exchange for approval to drastically expand highways around Nashua. Those highways have been finished for more than a decade — absolutely NOTHING has been done for the promised (and required) commuter rail extension.

    Our priorities are precisely reversed. Our government policies are making commuter rail more expensive, while making automobiles less expensive. We should and must do exactly the opposite.

    • I agree

      Although I don’t feel quite as vehement about it as do you.

      My zone 1 pass costs $173 of which my company pays $125 (the pre-tax limit). If I had chosen to drive to work, my company would pay the full $240 it costs to park in our garage (also the pre-tax limit), so it is actually costing me personally an extra $50 for the privilege of taking public transportation. I realize that most companies probably are not quite this generous, but you have to wonder why the pre-tax limit for parking is so much higher than it is for public transportation.

    • Nashua extension

      For what it’s worth, I understand (rightly or wrongly) that the hold-up on the commuter rail extension to Nashua is largely due to CSX’s (who owns the track) recalcitrance as much as anything else.

      • Nawp

        If CSX is dragging their feet, then the holdup is the gov’ts failure to get a legally binding commitment from CSX before moving forward with the highway portion. If CSX isn’t legally obligated to play ball, then the government failed. If CSX is obligated, than push that suit through the courts and move on.

      • CSX not involved

        The right of way in questions is owned by Pan Am Railways (formerly “Guilford Rail System”), it is the segment on the system map that joins Lowell and Concord, NH (it actually extends to Penacook NH).

        As stomv observes, it was the government’s job to obtain and enforce the commitment. One reason the specific owner matters is that Pan Am is headquartered in Billerica, MA — I am under the perhaps mistaken impression that Pan Am has attempted to be cooperative with the governments of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont regarding passenger service. I need to confess, however, that my impression is based on rumor and hearsay, and might well be without foundation. In any case, as a Massachusetts company, Pan Am is presumably more easily influenced by local state officials than CSX.

    • The difference is

      You can use a car to get from your home to your work, even if it would be inconvenient if not stupid to do so. I cannot use public transit to get to my workplace from my car. Seriously, it can’t happen. If we’re going to subsidize something, I’d rather it be for the greatest number possible.

      I’m not against public transit (didn’t own a car for 6 years), but I understand different people subsidize one another in transport all the time.

      sabutai   @   Tue 15 Jan 8:19 PM
  2. VMT stinks, gas tax underappreciated

    VMT stinks. It provides no incentive for users to conserve gasoline, and it requires oodles of technology, and there are privacy concerns. It’s a high-tech solution in search of a problem. The gas tax is far more elegant. As users get higher and higher MPG, you just increase the gas tax, which means that *per mile*, users will pay the same amount of tax (but less overall since they’re paying ExxonMobil less overall).

    Every penny in gas tax is worth ~$30M. My proposal:
    now/2013: +$0.05
    1/1/2014: +$0.01
    7/1/2014: +$0.01
    1/1/2015: +$0.01
    7/1/2015: +$0.01
    1/1/2016: +$0.01
    7/1/2016: +$0.01
    1/1/2017: +$0.01
    7/1/2017: +$0.01
    1/1/2018: +$0.01
    7/1/2018: +$0.01
    1/1/2019: +$0.01 and indexed to inflation, adjusted annually.
    That’s an increase of $30M X 16 = $480M (2013$) a year by 2019, ratcheting up in a regular, predictable manner so that budgets are tweaked, not overhauled nor subject to start-stop jolting.

    This way, the lege does it now, and the automatic increases, while allowing the GOP to grandstand a bit each year, allow the lege to just keep its head down, not adjust it, and get the increase in revenue we need slowly but surely, in a way that allows drivers time to adjust to the relatively small increase, relative to the actual price of gasoline.

    • Amen

      My take on VMT is that it’s a solution to the political problem of raising the gas tax. Despite the fact that the day-to-day fluctuations of the price of unleaded basically render cent increases in the tax invisible, for some reason if you raise the gas tax even a penny, everyone howls because they see the cost of gas every time they fill up. The thinking goes, If you move the tax so that you’re paying it with the rest of your taxes in April, or maybe tax it on to vehicle inspections with a yearly odometer reading maybe people won’t notice it as much.

      For me it’s like the tolls on the Pike. Before you could get a transponder, I had exact change every time I went anywhere and could tell you to the penny how much it cost in tolls to go from the NY border to exit 10 (and 10A after they built that). Now that I have EZ Pass, I couldn’t tell you how much it costs to travel the length of the Pike.

    • I like your proposal

      I like your proposal.

      My biggest concern with ruling out the VMT is that, in the timeframe of your proposal (2019), I think there’s a very high likelihood that many or most vehicles won’t use gas at all.

      I wonder if there’s some way to impose a carbon tax or, better, a weight tax. Electric vehicles, for example, don’t use gas but may well have a larger carbon footprint than gas-powered vehicles of comparable weight because of losses and carbon emissions in the electricity supply chain.

      Unless we find a way to reverse the laws of physics, it seems to me that we must find a way to move from one-person-per-vehicle to many-people-per-vehicle — independent from the specific propulsion technology for those vehicles. In the same vein, hard wheels rolling on hard surfaces (steel-railed transit, for example) is always going to be far more energy-efficient than soft wheels, whatever the motive power.

      The core transit issue that we MUST address, in my view, is the vital need to shift a very large portion of travel from highways to rail/light rail. We need to do this for both freight and passenger loads, and we need to this expansion regionally — well beyond the Boston metro area.

      We need good solid forward-looking system engineering, and we need the regional planning and zoning capabilities that enable such engineering to result in actual transportation solutions.

      • By 2019? Pshah!

        (Non-plug in) hybrids were introduced to the US market in 1999. 12 years later, hybrids made up just less than 3% of total auto sales. Uptake is slow. That’s gasoline hybrids, nearly all non-plug in. Plug in hybrids are way way back. Electric only? There are what, 100s on the road?

        Cars last 7 years. Even if 100% of the sales of a car are X, it takes 7 years to make the vast majority of the cars on the road X.

        We’re nowhere near that kind of market saturation for electric autos, even hybrid-gas electric. Nowhere near. 2030 might be a legitimate target. Let’s not delay good policy because of something which might become relevant 18 years from now, and which can’t sneak up on us because sales are published and studied by far too many people to miss the trend.

        I have no problem spec’ing out plugs for autos so that it’s a separate voltage, separate plug style, and separate meter from regular residential electric. Then, you can “bake in” any tax you want for each kWh of electricity used to move your auto. In my mind, it makes so much more sense to do it at the plug, since after all 60 Hz 120V electric just won’t give folks enough energy in their batteries fast enough to allow the vast majority of motorists to use electric-only vehicles anyway.

        • I support your gas tax proposal

          Perhaps I was unclear in my comment — I support your gas tax proposal. I’m therefore not proposing to delay anything.

          I’m only suggesting that a long-term view of transportation planning requires us to move away from a one-person/one-vehicle model and towards a more energy efficient alternative.

          One part of this long-term shift has important cultural implications — it may be time to rethink the role that automobile ownership plays in our culture. As a thought experiment, consider what our culture might be like if automobiles were viewed as being more like personal elevators than expressions of individual identity. Nobody ever thinks about the elevator as part of a transportation system — we forget that Manhattan was created by the simultaneous introduction of good subways, steel-framed skyscrapers, and reliable, fast and public elevators. None of it would work if workers had to climb 15 flights of stairs to reach their offices every day. We see the beginnings of this in car-sharing programs like ZipCar (I would have been happier if ZipCar had bought Avis instead of vice-versa).

          The automobile, like the whale-oil lamp, was an invention that was very much a response to plentiful and affordable real estate, gasoline, and prosperity. Since we now face the absence of all three, the automobile as we know it is no longer a sustainable transportation mainstay.

    • Seems the VMT is better transportation policy

      In terms of covering the transportation costs incurred by the state, wouldn’t the VMT more accurately collect revenue, for the professed and stated purpose of improving and maintaining road and bridges, from those who consume those assets? Heavier commercial vehicles pay weight/distance fees on interstates, no?

      The gas tax may be more efficient environmental policy but it seems like it is once removed as an unequivocal user fee (user of roads, bridges, tunnels, etc.)

      If raising general revenue to spend on “transportation,” who cares where it comes from? Money is fungible. It then boils down to political expedience.

  3. What's the percentage "transportation" budget spent on pensions and retirees?

    If your federal/state/local tax burden is 40%, which isn’t unlikely for a 2 income household in MA, the BEFORE TAX cost for your two Zone 6 tickets is $11,000. Perhaps answering how we got that “crushing debt” might be a valuable exercise for you and the Mr.

    I believe there is a general sense among the public, including transit users, that a ton of transportation money is never spent on transportation. It’s spent paying pensions and other retiree benefits.

    Salaries are pretty rich, too. The appx average wage before benefits for the 6,000 or so MBTA employees is $67,000. I wonder if the average “web/graphics/interactive design” professional’s wage is $67,000. And you don’t get free parking and free MBTA rides (so don’t forget to subtract $5,500 gross income for your T-pass.)

    I don’t precisely know what percentage of the total budget goes to retirees, but it’s not trivial. The MBTA’s 2011′s budgeted wages were $395 million, pension costs were $60 million, and healthcare was $115 million; that’s 30% on current wages which is high, so it likely covers active and retired personnel. Who can say what percentage allocates to the latter.

    And there’s probably no insignificant debt interest paid on prior debt borrowed to subsidize past operating expenses, including those on-going pensions/retiree benefits. It all compounds hideously year over year.

    That’s why you pay $275 per month, and, frankly, you’re lucky. The actual cost is $625.

    As an on-going business operation, the MBTA, and probably all other transportation related authorities, are increasingly hamstrung by their retiree demographics. I wouldn’t be surprised that $100 million goes towards that each year at the MBTA.

  4. Springfield-Boston

    I am in favor of more rail service between Springfield and Boston, but the engineering costs of either building a new line or revamping the existing one to bring competitive commuter rail service is one of the unicorns of Massachusetts transportation policy. Both east and west pols are guilty of believing in it, but it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding both about the state itself and the challenges.

    Springfield will not benefit spectacularly from a commuter rail line first of all. Under the sunniest of estimates, the trip would probably take as long as it takes Amtrak now, when you factor in the need for stops along the way like Palmer and maybe even the Brookfields and Charlton, etc. However, the problem is that snaking through the topography of the state would either require a brand new line or such substantial changes to the existing one as to not be worth it.

    HOWEVER, I think that better rail options in the Amtrak model are appropriate. Think the Downeaster. Let those that want to commute do so, but also let people just make day trip or short stays. Modest improvements like re-double-tracking some portions and bringing the tracks to a good state or repair could facilitate faster trains. Even better would be to expand those repairs from Albany to Boston. Amtrak could run three or four round trips (either with the Lake Shore Limited included or not) and that would have a far better impact on Springfield, in part by restoring its place as a true crossroads once again.

    • Springfield-Boston? Really?

      How many people go from Boston to Springfield? The expanding universe would tear apart before we’d see payback on that investment.

      • I would ride it fairly often.

        I think plenty of people would. Who wants to drive to Boston when you can take a train. I am so excited about the idea of Springfield to Boston rail service, with a stop in Palmer, of course. There is a group in Palmer who have been fighting to bring rail service back. The old train station is now a restaurant, and could probably be used still as a station. It would be so incredibly fabulous to have this service brought back to Palmer. YAAAYYYYYY!!!!!!!
        Steaming Tender Restaurant
        The group, known as the Palmer Rail Coalition has been trying to get a North/South line going through Palmer, however, I’m sure they would be pleased to have an East/West line put in place too.

        • Of course

          Who wouldn’t want to stop in the 157th most populous town in Massachusetts on their way to Boston or Springfield, the 1st and fourth most populous cities in New England, respectively?

          • Totally contradictory to your very own priority.

            Wouldn’t it be better to drop off dozens or potentially hundreds more people in Palmer, who live in Palmer but work in Springfield or Worcester, even Boston, than drop them off in Springfield or Worcester and make them drive to Palmer. Not to mention, that a stop in Palmer would create a boom for housing (and therefore business) there, as people with the option of commuting by train might choose to live in Palmer which would help to get rid of some of the congestion in the bigger cities. Is it just that you can’t fathom the idea of living outside of a huge city, so therefore, you don’t want that option for anyone else?

            • Seriously, how many people would use this?

              Do you have any stats? Couple hundred a month? Anything?

              I’m all for trains, buses, and ferries, but it’s got to make sense. If there’s demand, then show it. But I can’t believe there’s enough demand to merit any consideration of a line extension to Springfield. Give some private operator the right for free to run that segment (assuming the tracks exist) and see what happens. I bet you have no takers.

              Amtrak can’t even make money on any but its heaviest, most populous routes. I’m not sure the the Boston to NYC route covers its cost.

              • I have no idea how many would use it

                but currently Amtrak from Springfield to Boston is slow going. If it even travels there, which I think it does once a day, which is useless as a commuter option. I took Amtrak from Springfield to California; it takes three days (beautiful trip if your up for it). If they upgraded the system to light rail perhaps, or high speed rail, I believe many more people would use it, especially as a daily commuter option.

              • Amtrak Northeast financials fyi

                Amtrak operations are in the black in the Northeast from what I could find, which was from a Washington Post story in 2011.

                Boardman, the Amtrak president, said his company’s critics make a “great hullabaloo” over its government support, but the system’s revenue covers 85 percent of its overall operating costs. The Acela Express makes a 40 percent profit, and the other Northeast Corridor trains break even, he said. Government subsidies are necessary for almost all capital improvements.

                Government subsidies are necessary for almost all capital road projects as well (not to mention subsidies from people like me who pay for the Big Dig every time I drive between Framingham and Newton and pay my Pike toll, even when I’m not driving into Boston). I would need to compare subsidies per passenger mile to get a sense of which is more costly.

              • EVERY form of passenger service requires subsidies

                The premise that any passenger transportation system should be profitable, when the owner must pay for ALL capital, operating, and tax expenses, is failed. Air, road, and even ocean transport is heavily subsidized.

                You have, however, made one point that I strongly agree with.

                I suggest that the best long-term solution for the US transportation system is for the existing rail networks to be transferred to the government (some mix of local, state and federal). I mean the capital plant here &#8212 rails, right-of-way, signals, stations, and so on. I suggest that private companies then be allowed/encouraged to operate both freight and passenger equipment on these public rights-of-way. In essence, we take the same approach towards railroads that we have always taken towards highways.

                We might still have to subsidize some private passenger service. I submit that the overall cost would be dramatically less — and overall convenience and affordability dramatically better — then our options today.

            • Not at all

              Look, there’s a tradeoff. Adding a stop for Palmer is great if you live in Palmer, but slightly bad if you don’t. And most riders don’t live in Palmer.

              One way to think about it is: would there be more or fewer passenger miles if the Palmer stop is added? The answer isn’t at all clear to me. Study is needed for sure. Palmer’s got what, 12,000 residents? How many of ‘em are going to drive to the commuter rail station, park, catch the train, get off in Springfield, and then walk/bus/carpool to their office? Seriously, how many? I have a hard time imaging that it would be more than a few dozen. How many people have an additional 4 minutes tacked to their commute for these few dozen people? That’s the calculation of importance.

              Look, if it works out that the Palmer folks are a key part to getting the political mojo for the rail line, then hat’s off. Stopping in Palmer is a small price to pay. If Palmer’s willing to upzone the heck out of town, so that substantially more riders can move to Palmer, that’s interesting too. Somehow I doubt Palmer is interested in substantial growth though, and it’s not called mass transit because it’s in Massachusetts — it’s called mass transit because it moves a large number of people. Is that possible with Palmer?

              P.S. I don’t live in a huge city. I live in a town.

              • There are a ton of NIMBYs in Palmer and surrounding towns

                who think that encouraging any growth here is detrimental to the beauty of small town life. However, small town life can only go so far, and once you reach a tipping point, small towns begin to look and feel like ghost towns. The truth is there is a ton of room for growth in this area. Palmer has three outlying villages: Three Rivers, Thorndike and Bondsville, as well as surrounding towns that are filled with vacant mills and manufacturing buildings. If manufacturing can’t be reintroduced there, then certainly they could be transformed into condos, apartments or marketplaces. Opening up a train stop in Palmer will promote re-localization and revitalize this whole region. I do believe people will use the train, as long as it is made convenient, comfortable, and affordable. You might have to do a little advertising or promotion for it. Once people realize it’s far preferable to sit and read/work/relax for your commute than it is to stress behind the wheel of a car in traffic, people will get right on board that train. I am sure of it. Also, it’s true that once in Springfield, there would have to be readily available services to provide the now carless with transportation to their workplace. Springfield is not as walkable as Boston is, because there is no subway system. Maybe it’s time to consider some sort of tram service in Springfield. Also, with regard to buses, trams, taxis, etc. Once you put public transportation in the same environment as cars, with the stop lights and traffic jams, you lose the value quickly. Mass transit should always move separately from the general car, truck, pedestrian environment. It is a more attractive option that way.

  5. SomervilleTom, what auto subsidies are you refering to?

    I’m not aware of any direct subsidies unless you are refering to subsidies to Big Oil or the fact that most roads are free, so if all I need is a clarification on that, fine.

    No VMT or increased gas tax, thank you. The trick is to make the desired habits cheaper rather than the undesirable ones more expensive. My preference is raise income taxes and ultimately make public transit free like almost all roads are. Also make vehicles more efficient, but yes, paved roads will continue to be a vital part of our infrastructure and thus our economy.

    • Simple budget disparities

      Simply compare what we spend on highways and automobiles to what we spend on rail. As a randomly-chosen example (it was the first google link I found), consider this recent report from MassDOT, specifically figure 6 on page 8 — $5.5B on highways. According the official MBTA budget, FY2012 operating expenses were $1.2B — about one quarter.

      When the bridge decks of I93 were found to be in danger of collapse (what a surprise!), they were immediately repaired — suddenly the government found $14M (I think that was the number). Meanwhile, we can’t even figure out how to get commuter rail coaches built and delivered — that contract is now two years late and slipping.

      Commuter trains fail ALL THE TIME because we can’t afford new locomotives and we can’t afford to maintain the ones we have. Commuter trains run so infrequently that for all too many workers they are simply not an option. Heaven forbid somebody DARE think about living in Boston and attempting the wrong-way rail commute.

      You and I have been around this one before. The most effective way to make the undesirable habit of driving to work more expensive is to impose a gas tax increase along the lines of stomv’s proposal upthread.

      We have never paid the replacement cost for the petroleum products we burn in our automobiles, and we haven’t even begun to pay the present value of the environmental and climate change costs of our current emissions (never mind the steps needed to even slow the RISE in those emissions).

      Sources like this Massachusetts Government Summary of GHG Emissions are seldom discussed or reported. In 2007 (that’s the last year I can find data for in the minute or so I have to type this), our Non-Biogenic CO2 emissions were 79.9 million metric tons, of which a whopping 33.1 million metric tons were from automobile CO2 emissions.

      I suggest that we should be turning our paved roads into “linear parks” for hiking and biking, not our former railroad lines.

    • Roads are free?

      I think we pay taxes to build and maintain them.

  6. Roads are free in the direct fee sense.

    To BostonShepherd, what I meant was in MA only the Pike and the harbor tunnels charge tolls. Yes, of course our taxes maintain them, and my point was the same should be true for mass transit if we want to get everyone to ride them.

    SomervilleTom, I agree with a lot of what you say regarding the disparate ability to find money for road vs. rail. I will continue to strongly disagree that roads should be looked upon as a necessary evil, which is what I infer from your comments. Roads are, and I suspect always will be to some extent, very necessary for commerce and just getting where we want when we want, and I don’t understand why you’re not more amenable to simply requiring more efficient personal vehicles. Not all places and times are served by mass transit and not all places and times will ever be efficiently served, though I am all for increasing that. My philosophy comes down to using carrots, whereas you seem bent on using sticks.

    • It's intolerance

      toward a different way of life. Very unattractive way to try to create change.

    • More efficient vehicles don't get us there

      The bumper-to-bumper parking lot of I93 would be intolerable even if each vehicle got 200MPG. Efficiency isn’t going to solve the horrific impacts ever-growing highways have on the communities, environment, and culture that surround them.

      I agree that roads will always be necessary. They will NOT always need to be six lane linear deserts. I have never suggested that “all places and times” be served by mass transit. I grow impatient when you so frequently jump to extremes when I suggest nuance.

      An automobile may always be the preferred way to do the weekly grocery shopping. That automobile does not need to sit in your driveway unused when you are not shopping, and it does not need to clog the highway every morning and every evening so that it can sit, unused and empty, in a parking lot near your workplace.

      We face unimaginable consequences if we cannot find a way to create a sustainable future. If it is “intolerant” for me to abhor pure denial of obvious reality, then I plead “guilty”.

  7. The problem with raising any sort of taxes and/or fees

    is that no-one has any more money, except for the people who are either swimming in money, or who have large enough incomes that they easily meet their household budgets and have plently left over to spare. Raises are in short supply this year, definitely not keeping up with inflation, and many are not getting raises at all, or they’re working for less pay than they previously earned. I realize we need to invest in our infrastructure; I want that too. But we need to find the money where the money is, and taking more money right now from average incomed people, seniors, and the poor, is the wrong way out. The courageous thing to do would be to stop subsidizing corporations and rich people and start leveling the playing field. Maybe we could tax hugely profitable corporations that are paying minimum wage allowing their employees to live in poverty. Why can’t we do that? Who is afraid to do that? Why do we have to subsidies profitable companies, who pay million dollar salaries to a few at the top while leaving the majority of their employees in poverty in need of government services.

    • Too late for that

      A great many of us share your desire to “find the money where the money is” — “tax hugely profitable corporations that are paying minimum wage allowing their employees to live in poverty”. Sadly, that is a huge battle against entrenched interests and we won’t win that in time to solve this year’s state budget crisis.

      We’ve underfunded our transportation infrastructure for decades, and it is literally falling apart. We haven’t raised taxes — in fact, we’ve been cutting taxes — in far too long already.

      The people of this state, where “no-one has any more money”, are still spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on sporting events. We are, in fact, among the wealthiest states in America. Our median income is higher, our property values are among the highest in the nation.

      The time has come for us to stop confusing “want” and “need” — “don’t want” and “can’t”. In fact, we can raise taxes and fees. In fact, we must raise taxes and fees, because if we don’t, the consequences will be far more costly.

      • Agree that we need to raise revenue

        How we do that, however, is up for debate. I for one, would be much happier if we raised the income tax to pay for transit rather than raise the gas tax.
        As L&LL says, the gas tax is pretty regressive – even if the average driver is wealthier than the average transit user (which I’d doubt holds true for both average and median) – the folks who are going to be hit hardest by the gas tax are folks who work retail, who clean houses, who do odd jobs, who live in rural areas. However, raising the income tax and increasing exemption (or pushing for a progressive income tax) can hold these folks essentially harmless without harming folks who don’t have any income but do drive.

        If we want to reduce the number of cars on the road, there are more direct ways of doing that, raising parking rates in Boston and congestion based tolls.

  8. I agree there is too much traffic sometimes.

    I will continue to say that the more desirable method is to incentivise transit rather than penalize private transpor. I worked in Boston last summer and I would either drive or take commuter rail depending on day of the week and exact destination. (My job had a couple different locations.) The 93 parking lot certainly wasn’t any fun and I would be more than happy to take the T, but that was a $16 round trip (I was making just this side of minimum wage), and would have included parking except I could get a ride to the station. I was in no position to pay a penny more than I have to, but again if we make the T completely free like the roads are I’ll jump on the train in a heartbeat. Also, there are plenty of choices we still don’t have in terms of time and geography. What if my commute were Lowell to Worcester? No options besides driving 495 and 290 there. I DO think there is room for convenience in this discussion. We don’t like austerity in our economy and we should not have to accept it in our lifestyles. We CAN and must do better than that!

    • It sounds like we agree

      I agree that if you want public transportation between Lowell and Worcester, you’re out of luck today. While I don’t know whether the statistics support that specific connection, my argument is that we should elevate the priority of creating commuter rail service above highway construction or expansion for such links. When new highway construction is proposed, I suggest that we should first examine the possibility of building a rail connection.

      Please note that the system map for Pan Am Railways shows that a direct rail route already exists between Lowell and Worcester and is still in frequent freight use. In fact, the option to connect Lowell and Worcester by train could be offered — almost certainly for less cost than building a new highway. In the past, our government chose to build expensive superhighways while choosing NOT to support continued rail passenger service.

      Massachusetts was criss-crossed by a lattice of electric inter-urban (today we would call them “light rail”) railways that provided MUCH richer inter-city options than exist today. Today’s D Line uses a former inter-urban route, many of our rail-trails use them. Those were systematically destroyed by GM in combination with corrupt local governments nationwide — GM falsely claimed cost and maintenance efficiencies, used bait-and-switch tactics, and number of similarly unsavory practices to destroy the nation’s trolley networks so that cities and towns would build highways and buy buses instead. The relevant wikipedia article on the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy is a reasonable starting-point.

      I agree with you that public transportation must be convenient and affordable. That is why we must make significant investments to create that convenience and affordability. We also know that automobiles and highways are devastating to our environment, our culture, and the very lives of our progeny. That is why we should be extraordinarily slow to invest in further expansions of them.

  9. More math on Lynne's point

    I too am a fan of affordable public transit and don’t want to argue with the basic point. I support an increase in the gas tax, even though no one in my household can take public transit to work, because I believe in public transportation.

    However, if you’re calculating the cost of driving a car, you need to add in more than gas and tolls.

    AAA says it costs an average of 44.9 cents/mile to drive a small car and 58.5 cents/mile for a medium sedan (significantly more for larger cars and SUVs), while IRS reimburses an average at 55.5 cents/mile. Some of that is insurance that you’d be paying anyway, although I think you may get a discount if you don’t drive much or have a transit pass. But you do need to add in wear and tear and depreciation on the car with all that driving to make a fair comparison.

    So, if Lowell to Boston is 30 miles one way, the small car cost would be $26.94 per day or $538 per month for 20 commuting days, excluding tolls and any parking costs. At the mid-sized car rate, you’re talking $702. For one person, it appears the train is less expensive hands down. For a carpool of two — and carpools are also a good thing — it’s debatable.

    The problem is, it’s more difficult to immediately associate the multiple hundreds of dollars you pay when you need to replace your transmission or buy new tires with “that’s because I drive my car to work instead of taking the train.”

    • Why people don't do that

      Until and unless public transit gets so incredibly good that you no longer need a car at all, people will continue to “have to have a car.”

      In that situation it’s going to be the marginal cost of operating the car, not the total cost of ownership, that governs transit decisions versus mass transit.

      Different price signals will produce different results.

      • Negatory

        People will continue to “have to have access to a car”. That’s a far cry from owning one. There’s car sharing (hourly rental). There’s daily rental. Both of those options are commonly used by households in the Boston inner metro when there are more adults than autos. Sure, you need a few things to make it work: you need to be able to commute to work without an auto the vast majority of the time. You need appropriately located car options. It really requires living in a place with a high Walk Score.

        Thing is, for folks to be in the situation I described, there needs to be mixed use, sufficiently dense development. You need the kind of first floor retail, 2nd floor commercial, 3-5 floor residential development without side lots to make it work. To get the ZipCars of the world to put vehicles in your neighborhood, you need enough people living within 1/4 mile who don’t own their own car. You need density, both residential and commercial.

        That’s going to require a radically different view on zoning for most communities in Massachusetts. In most places, minimum parking requirements, side-lot buffers, height restrictions, mixed-use prohibitions, etc. make it impossible to build the very kind of built space which can support high quality public transit as well as car options for folks who don’t own cars. That kind of radical change isn’t the kind of thing you see virtually any community embrace.

        • Still, marginal costs will decide

          and people will continue to do what the infrastructure tells them to do.

          • But what's 'marginal cost'?

            I’d agree that auto insurance is not a marginal, unless you get a discount for not driving much. But replacing tires, changing oil and the like ARE marginal cost. If you drive 2 miles to the train station, those costs will be lower each year than if you drive 60 miles roundtrip each day to work; and you will need to shell out money sooner for another car when yours wears out.

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