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February 2, 2021
The Chamber urges the legislature to restore two provisions of last session’s transportation bond bill that were vetoed by Governor Baker. The vetoes of the special commission on roadway and congestion pricing and the expansion of transportation network company (TNC) fees strip the state of powerful mechanisms to study, plan for, finance, and manage mobility once post-pandemic travel patterns take shape. The special commission will study options for developing a 21st congestion management system, and both the commission and increased fees on TNCs will raise much needed revenues so the state can continue to invest in its transportation infrastructure. Massachusetts cannot afford to wait, as Governor Baker suggests it should, to modernize transportation funding, policy, and infrastructure.
The Chamber asks the Legislature to readopt language to create a special commission on roadway and congestion pricing as defined in Section 46 and expanded TNC fees as defined in Section 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 20, and 47 of H.5248 An Act Authorizing and Accelerating Transportation Investment.
The Legislature should consider two modifications to the special commission to address concerns that the pandemic has created an uncertain future because of shifts in how and where we work. First, the commission’s term should be lengthened to two years, with a final recommendation filed with the Legislature no later than January 1, 2023. Second, while the commission’s tasks already include providing “traffic forecasts including forecasts of traffic diversion impacts,” the revised legislation should require the group to consider changing commuting habits and patterns and develop recommendations based on multiple scenarios, similar to the approach the MBTA took in its Forging Ahead Initiative.
The work of the commission on roadway and congestion pricing is not only necessary, it is achievable despite the challenges presented by COVID. Led by an independent expert, the commission can use data and assumptions, such as the traffic count guidance for planning and designing projects issued by earlier this year, to estimate near-term demand and create scenarios that would influence roadway demand. Worth noting, the commission is not simply another study. Rather, it is an initiative designed to position the state to successfully implement a specific plan. The commission can also begin the important task of determining options to help finance the state’s long-term transportation infrastructure needs.
Nobody can predict the precise long-term effects of COVID on transportation and commuting patterns, but the state should still prepare to meet transportation demands in a post-COVID world. In his veto letter, Governor Baker points to the need to understand post-pandemic traffic patterns before continuing conversations on congestion management. This contradicts Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation which explicitly encourages forward thinking congestion management. Recommendation #3 calls for working with multiple stakeholders to better manage congestion. In this recommendation the Commission states: “While the full set of factors that will contribute to congestion in 2040 is unknown, a comprehensive array of options to address today’s congestion can prepare the Commonwealth for the future.” Similarly, while we do not yet fully understand what commuting will look like in a post-COVID world, we should be preparing the tools necessary to create and manage a 21st century transportation system.
One of these tools should be changing the structure for fees on TNC trips. While commuting patterns will change to a degree, TNCs will continue to draw riders away from public transit and contribute to congestion, especially in urban areas. The state should structure these fees to incentivize shared transportation and distribute the revenue to invest in regional transportation authorities across the state. The Chamber also strongly supports an additional surcharge on luxury rides, which introduces a greater degree of equity to our transportation funding mechanisms.
Prior to the pandemic, Massachusetts had reached near-crisis levels with its transportation systems, and the sense of urgency for solving transportation challenges should remain. By waiting to define a new normal in commuting patterns, the state will be complacent at the exact time it should be bold. The state should invest in the future or risk permanent shifts away from public transit to cars, economically hollowed-out employment centers, and losing employers and talent.
Many essential workers cannot work remotely and have continued to commute to work. Across Greater Boston, congestion is already returning as residents increasingly use the vehicle as their favored form of transportation. A recent study from the City of Boston showed that a greater number of workers anticipate driving alone will be their mode of commuting when they return from the pandemic. We already see evidence of this trend: Massachusetts’s average weekday vehicle miles traveled in September were down only 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels while MBTA trips were down over 70 percent. Rather than waiting to see how these patterns change once the vaccine is widely distributed, the state should be thinking about ways to address congestion now.
Even though travel patterns have changed and may shift again post-pandemic because of a permanent shift to more time working away from the office, remote work comes with consequences. If the state wants the economy to come roaring back and small businesses to survive, people must return in large numbers to employment centers across the state. Without a robust transportation system to support this return, these businesses will not survive. Already, the number of open small businesses in Massachusetts has plummeted by 37 percent compared to January 2020; for those who have been able to remain open, a lagging return to workplaces because of transportation could mean the difference between survival and permanent closure.
Sending a signal that the state remains willing to improve transportation and commutes is evermore important because the workforce and employers are now more mobile than ever. An overreliance on expanded remote work as the solution to our transportation challenges presents substantial risk to our economy because remote work is not limited to within the Massachusetts borders. Employees can move out-of-state, and employers can hire out-of-state. The annual United Van Lines National Movers Study shows that more people are leaving Massachusetts than entering it, and that has been the case for the last several years. One of the most significant shifts is a rising share of people leaving for “lifestyle” reasons – 13.8 percent cited lifestyle as their primary reason for moving in 2015 compared to more than 19 percent citing it as their primary reason for moving in 2018, 2019, and 2020. “Lifestyle” is likely at least partially attributable to quality-of-life issues like commutes.
Massachusetts’ competitive edge has always been our talent, and the easier remote work is, the greater the risk that we lose that competitive advantage. Driving into Boston from the south on the Expressway, just as you pass the Neponset on-ramp – a notoriously tangled stretch of road – there was recently a billboard touting the state of Ohio because, it claims, both the business climate and traffic are better there than in Massachusetts. While some may scoff at the prospect of losing residents to Ohio, this billboard should send antennae up. They have identified our weakness – transportation – and they are using it to try to steal our strength – talent.
This billboard further underscores that transportation remains an issue and delaying efforts to address congestion and improve public transit, like the roadway pricing commission, is short-sighted. Tele-commuting should be an option that helps improve quality of life, not an option that is made necessary by the continued failure to have reliable public transit, manage congestion, raise needed revenues, modernize our funding strategy, and sufficiently invest in our state’s transportation system. The economy should drive our transportation planning and approach, not vice versa.
Over time, the pricing of mobility has been implemented on an as-needed basis, not as the result of a thoughtful statewide pricing strategy that considers equity, economic development objectives, and behavioral incentives. Nor does our current system consider the long-term implications of achieving the environmental objective to reduce emissions from gasoline consumption and therefore gas tax revenue.
Finally, Governor Baker’s veto letter comments that the impact of a congestion commission would be unduly borne by low-income commuters. This comment anticipates an outcome of the commission, despite no such outcome being guaranteed. Furthermore, the burden of funding transportation in Massachusetts is already unduly borne by transit riders, many of whom are low-income residents. Over the last 30 years MBTA fares have increased over 200 percent despite the gas tax increasing by only 14 percent. Recent cuts to MBTA service once again demonstrate that the state is comfortable balancing transportation budgets to the detriment of public transit riders. And, western Massachusetts and Metrowest residents are well aware of the inequity of tolls on I-90 while other parts of the state have no tolls. The commission could both address existing inequities and integrate equity into future planning.
The transportation bond bill, as adopted by the Legislature, included important tools for investing in the future of transportation. By removing these provisions, the state risks exacerbating the problems caused by years of underinvestment in our transportation system. It was clear before the pandemic that our transportation systems were broken, and this remains true today. We urge the Legislature to quickly restore the special commission on roadway and congestion pricing and restructured TNC fees.
 Guidance on Traffic Count Data
 Impact of COVID-19 on commuting choices, City of Boston and A Better City
 MassDOT Mobility Dashboard
 Annual 2020 United Van Lines National Movers Survey
Download the Letter
Senior Director, Technology & Business Systems