Massachusetts officials spent decades avoiding highway improvement projects and treating drivers as rolling wallets. A study out this month confirms they were successful in creating congestion. Now they offer the prepared solution to the crisis they created: more tolls.
It’s the same playbook they used on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The Turnpike Authority put off maintenance in favor of higher salaries. When it came time to remove tolls, DOT officials said tolls were needed because they hadn’t been maintaining the road properly.
There hasn’t been a significant road improvement planned in Massachusetts in this millennium. We saw completion of a few projects decades in the making, like a fourth lane on part of Route 128 and a new interchange on Route 2 at Crosby’s Corner. But the I-93/I-95 interchange improvement died because MassHighway was not allowed to use eminent domain. A review of I-495 over a decade ago noted that congestion was forecast to get worse but deliberately chose not to fix it. Same on Route 2 in central Massachusetts.
Putting things off only makes construction more expensive. When ODOT rebuilt I-670 in Columbus about 15 years ago, the project was cheap because the road could be shut down for a few months. Can’t do that around here because there is no capacity to divert traffic.
Even the little projects are often designed to make things worse. Lane amputations are fasionable. The newspeak term is “diet”. You do lose weight if they cut off your leg, but you wouldn’t call that a diet.
Like the Turnpike Authority, the regional transit authority also ranks its payroll higher than its transportation system. Like the highway system, the rail lines are showing their age and suffering from delays. But the response from politicians and other “influencers” is different. The buzz this year says mass transit should not charge users if service is bad. Meanwhile drivers should be charged double if service is bad.
Enough of the two legs good four wheels bad nonsense. We should have consistent solutions to similar problems.
One is to waive charges when there are traffic delays. If it takes you 20 minutes to get from Woburn to Boston on I-93, you get a credit against gas taxes. If it takes you 20 minutes from Weston to Allston on the Turnpike, your toll is refunded. If it takes you 20 minutes from Davis Square to Harvard on the Red Line, your fare is refunded.
Another is to ask both systems cover their costs. We might have to increase gas taxes 25% or so to handle deferred maintenance and needed improvements, but mass transit fares outside of the urban core would triple. Which is fine. If you insist on a $2 billion rail line between Fall River and New Bedford or between Medford and Cambridge a $50 fare is not too much to ask. You could have spent $500 million on road improvements.
Or we could recognize that we are rewarding corporate raider tactics. The standard cycle of American business is a leveraged buyout, transfer of assets to investors at below market value, and bankruptcy to transfer costs to innocent third parties. The cycle of transportation is padded salaries and benefits, no improvements, and a crisis demanding higher user fees.
When I offered a crude cost-benefit analysis of transportation decisions, a former transportation planner told me she had never heard anybody advocating such strange concepts. It’s not the way things are done around here. We listen to a handful of influential old people who want personal bus stops.
We should fire the people responsible for all modes of transportation planning. The replacements will be instructed to use cost-benefit analysis instead of slogans. If they need more money they can go to the general fund where they will be competing with patronage jobs, lawmakers’ luxury vacations, and the like.
Parts of the system may wither, but the important parts will thrive.
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