(How’s that for a mixed metaphor?)
Charlie Baker is best understood as a conservative — that is, someone who is risk averse; suspicious of innovation; reluctant to move too quickly. After losing as a Tea Party-esque Angry Conservative in 2010, he sold himself in 2014 as a manager of an existing political consensus, neither an innovator nor a wrecking ball.
The transportation crisis is showing the limits of his conservative temperament. And he’s failing to adjust.
Crises happen because of policy failures — policies that were the result of a previous political consensus (or impasse). A crisis therefore demands leadership — moving away from the previous political “sweet spot”, and establishing a new one through force of will and evidence. It’s risky, but staying put on crumbling ground is no option.
Our policy consensus for the last 20 years has favored suspicion and austerity towards transit. This led to our current crisis of our transit system — which has precipitated a system-wide transportation crisis. Driving, Lyft, and Uber have replaced some trips that might have been otherwise been taken on reliable public transit. And here we are.
Knowing Baker’s temperament, we might have guessed that he would take the slow road in his new transportation proposals. He is not “using the crisis” to bring bold transit ideas to life, like much more frequent and electrified commuter rail service (TransitMatters’ “Regional Rail”). Instead, he is trying to prop up a dismal, dirty, and inequitable status quo.
Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, praised many of the recommendations in the report but reacted negatively to the dismissal of congestion pricing approaches he has championed. “When it comes to road pricing, this report falls short,” he said. “The Governor must more aggressively confront congestion by piloting and testing smarter tolling approaches that have worked in other regions and can work here.”
And as Stacy Thompson of the Livable Streets Alliance points out, the sense of urgency is still missing. What are the short-term, “early action items” that could somewhat soften the problem — shoulder bus lanes, e.g.? If you don’t have a governor that takes the T, he’s inclined to think of this crisis as a chronic, manageable condition — as opposed to a series, a lifetime, of acute personal crises and heart-pounding stress for everyone who rides. There are things he could do now; he’s not doing them, instead suggesting more study.
There are grave climate and health impacts at stake: If we are enabling a pervasive car-driving culture into the future, we are locking in years of increased pollution. Ground-level ozone — caused by driving — causes emphysema at a rate comparable to smoking cigarettes. And we have absolutely no time to waste in stopping carbon emissions.
That means we need to do things differently — perhaps radically. We can get people in and out and around Greater Boston, cleanly and efficiently, if we decide to. But Baker’s sense of “fairness” is driven less by social equity, and more by a conservative sensitivity to potential disruption — thereby privileging not the best, fairest solution, but “legacy” modes of transport. Call it the advantage of incumbency: We’ve always done it this way.
But since we’re already disrupted, why not be bold and re-think the whole thing? Why not have “commuter rail” that comes every 15-30 minutes? Why not normalize and expand bike travel with interconnected, dedicated infrastructure on a totally equal footing with car travel — particularly in city centers? Why not charge everyone to drive into the city — just like we charge everyone on the Turnpike, the Tobin Bridge, and the tunnels now; and as has been practiced successfully in a variety of places, including London? And yes, “get the damn [MBTA] working”?
Here’s a guy with sky-high — truly unrealistic — approval ratings. (No one’s that good, folks.) He can move the public opinion needle all by himself. He could be bold and visionary, if he just wanted to, with improvements that would be felt for decades — in equity, in the economy, in people’s physical well-being.
And he’s wasting the crisis. He simply accepts that some things can’t be done. But it’s not an immutable state of nature, an iron decree from the gods above.
It’s just because he won’t do them.