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Report: MBTA is vital for economy, worthy of investment

Authors find public transit lessens traffic, encourages economic growth in region

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Report: MBTA is vital for economy, worthy of investment
Panelists discuss public transit goals and issues at the release event for A Better City’s report, “The Transportation Dividend: Transit Investments and the Massachusetts Economy.” (l–r) The Barr Foundation President James Canales, moderator; Harvard Business School Ernest R. Arbuckle Professor and Author Rosabeth Moss Kanter; A Better City President and CEO Rick Dimino; Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation Real Estate Project Manager Jarred Johnson; Boston At-Large City Councilor Michelle Wu; Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) Executive Director Chris Dempsey. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Who needs the MBTA? We all do, according to a new report highlighting the public transit system’s impact on local and regional economies.

“The Transportation Dividend: Transit Investments and the Massachusetts Economy,” by Boston-based business group A Better City and national research firm AECOM, was unveiled Feb. 8 with an event and panel discussion hosted by the Boston Foundation, one of the funders of the report.

The MBTA system delivers an annual benefit of $11.4 billion to Greater Boston on an operating budget of just over $2 billion, the researchers calculated. That $11.4 billion — in reduced travel time and cost, reduced emissions and crashes avoided — translates to a benefit of $6,700 per household in the region.

Having an extensive public transit system, the report notes, also has saved the Greater Boston region an estimated $15 billion over time in avoided costs such as additional highways and parking spaces.

And thanks to transit service, the Boston area’s economically powerful concentration of education, health, finance and technology industries has emerged and thrived with a smaller, less sprawling footprint.

But in order to continue playing its key role in the region’s economy, the report says, the MBTA needs significant additional investment to catch up on a backlog of repairs and to improve the system’s capacity and service.

System size and benefits

The MBTA provides 1.3 million rides each day, serving passengers moving around within Boston as well as to and from a 20-community “inner core” and a wider 164-community metropolitan region.

Speakers and panelists at last week’s events emphasized that sustaining and improving the transit system benefits not only T riders, but all area residents, through reduced traffic congestion, reduced emissions and increased attractiveness of the area to business and institutions.

“It’s often easy to focus solely on the transit users and to forget that those who do not use public transportation [also] benefit significantly from investments in it,” said panel moderator James Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, a funder of the report.

Areas of density and growth

The MBTA service area’s inner core, anchored by Boston, contains 11 percent of the metro area’s land, but holds 37 percent of its population and 44 percent of its jobs — and one-third of all Massachusetts jobs.

This inner core is likely to attract the bulk of growth over the next two decades, particularly in areas within walking distance of public transit. The report builds the case that with this additional growth in mind, the state and region must ensure that the transit system can not only keep up with existing demand, but accommodate new needs and offer enhanced services.

More funds needed

Beyond tackling the repair backlog and adding more vehicles to ramp up capacity, recommendations for service enhancements include adding ferry routes and making bus service more rapid with the use of dedicated bus lanes, signal prioritization and a more efficient fare collection system.

Another recommended enhancement is to reimagine the commuter rail as a dual system: an improved regional rail that would carry commuters into Boston while also serving Gateway Cities with more two-way service; and an urban rail that would employ shorter trains to provide high-frequency service — a solution that has long been sought by Fairmount Line advocates.

One emerging model is to fund new “infill” stations on existing lines in partnership with institutions, businesses, developers and municipalities. The recent Assembly Square station on the Orange line is cited as a success story in that model.

Rick Dimino, President and CEO of A Better City, squashed the notion that ride-sharing or autonomous vehicles could take the place of the T.

“Ride sharing will not accommodate large volumes of people in and out of economic centers,” he said. “Jobs and connectivity involving large volumes of people require a transit system.”

Wanted: excitement,
political will

So how will added investment in public transit come about?

While the report states that “the path forward is clear,” and lays out clear strategies for investment, it stops short of suggesting how the funds are to be gained.

At the event, Dimino noted that part of the T’s revenue comes from the state sales tax, and that efforts such as a ballot initiative to reduce the tax — a popular idea among retail associations — should be resisted.

City Councilor Michelle Wu, who chairs the council’s committee on planning, development and transportation, mentioned the Fair Share Amendment, which would add a surtax on income over $1 million and direct it toward transportation and education. Supporting this amendment is an important step voters can take.

The best advocacy strategy may involve reframing the message to one that shows people what they’re paying for and ignites enthusiasm about transit possibilities.

Chris Dempsey, executive director of Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), said it’s important to evoke the feeling of sitting in a car in “soul-crushing traffic.” He suggested “smarter tolling” that would make it cost more to drive on highways at high-congestion times. Such user-funding of systems is best, as it helps reveal the true costs of amenities such as highway space and free street parking, he said.

Panelist Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of a book on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, said building public support for transit investment requires a sense of shared space, “public sector courage,” a clear picture of what the public is getting for its money, and a sense of positive excitement about a vision.

“’Maintenance’ is not a vision,” she said. “Support and political will comes from creating something new.”

As a closing note, it was mentioned that Gov. Charlie Baker announced in January a new Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth, which could spur opportunities for dialogue on transit investment. The commission’s stated purpose is to advise the administration on transportation planning in the face of climate, demographic, technological and other changes.

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