Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Road to Reform? The MassDOT is Coming! The MassDOT is Coming! (Part 1)

Coming in one week is a major reorganization of the state transportation agencies. Right now, Massachusetts has an alphabet soup of agencies loosely organized under the Secretary of Transportation and Public Works. The reorg will create MassDOT, somewhat resembling the normative state DOT (Department of Transportation) that most states have.

The stated reasons for the reorganization are many. There are fiscal considerations such as the savings of consolidating certain administrative functions and reforming retirement programs. There is the idea all state highways and bridges should be maintained and operated by a single agency instead of several. There is the idea of greater transparency, greater responsiveness. And the idea of consolidating transportation policy, decision-making, and funding into a single multi-modal vision.

While the fiscal considerations are the selling point for many, I want to focus on what this means for transportation in Massachusetts.

  • Will this end the chronic underfunding of the MBTA?
  • Will this do anything with the backlog of structurally and functionally deficient bridges?
  • Who will plow the DCR parkways and bridges this year?
  • Where is that bus that should have come 15 min. ago?

I’ll get to a number of these issues over the course of a series of posts on this topic. But first, my number one argument for creating a DOT.

Argument No. 1 for a DOT
Witness how the taxpayer looses out when there’s an uncoordinated gaggle of transportation agencies each with their narrow vision and objectives. My example takes place along the MBTA Lowell Line, where the proposed Green Line Extension is planned. I’ve been working on projects in this corridor over the last 18 years. For all that time, the MBTA anticipated the Green Line extension and we had even done a preliminary alignment for that extension so that when we designed drainage improvements in 1991, we would design to accommodate the future Green Line.

All the while, MHD (Massachusetts Highway Department) had its consultants designing replacement bridges for the local streets that spanned the MBTA rail corridor. Now MHD could save a lot of money on the new bridges by spanning as narrow a corridor as possible. Shorter bridges are less expensive. So, rather than consider the future Green Line, MHD would rather just design a new bridge to span only the active tracks.

Keep in mind that the Commonwealth had made a commitment to extend the Green Line as mitigation for the Big Dig. And to build the Green Line, the bridges needed to be long enough to span not just the 2 or 3 active tracks, but at least 4 tracks to accommodate the addition of the extension. Nevertheless, over the last 10 years, MHD still built 3 new bridges that are not long enough to accommodate the Green Line Extension.

So, this is clearly a case where a narrowed-focused agency was not making decisions in concert with the state’s commitment for another agency. With such parochial thinking, it is the Commonwealth and ultimately the taxpayers who are the losers.

So, my hope is that a single DOT will ensure that all transportation divisions (bridges, roads, transit, aviation) will be on the same page as far as state commitments and coordination with other proposed projects. Capital and operating expenditures need to be considered in the context of the planning and objectives of the entire state transportation system.

Some Clear Advantages
Theoretically, a single DOT should result in a better approach to policy, funding, and planning:

  • A single consistent transportation policy
  • An intermodal approach to transportation planning
  • Better funding of all modes (particularly the chronically underfunded transit systems and parkways)

My example above illustrates the need for the first two advantages. Let me expound a little on something I’ll call “cross-modal” funding.

Cross-Modal Funding
On the funding side, there should be more opportunities to achieve equity in funding the various modes. In particular, gas tax revenues could more readily fund more that just highways as it typically has in the past. This approach could help out the chronically underfunded MBTA.

But to understand this approach, there needs to be an understanding of how this will benefit the Commonwealth. This starts with understanding that adequate funding for transit and rail will also benefit the state roadway system. As people shift from single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) to transit, it frees up roadway capacity, improving highway operations and reducing the wear and tear on roads and bridges. This also should reduce the need to spend funds to increase roadway capacity.

The same is true with freight. Every freight car represents 4 less trucks taking up roadway capacity and pounding the life out of taxpayer funded bridges. Shifting freight, particularly to the privately owned freight lines, off loads the tax burden of repairing and replacing public roads and bridges while providing added revenue to tax-paying freight railroads.

Furthermore, transit and rail use of less real estate than highways to carry the same number of people per hour or tons of freight per hour.

In summary, a shifting of funding to provide reliable passenger transit and encourage freight rail use will provide benefits in terms of lessening the burden of taxpayer-funded maintenance, repair, replacement, and capacity improvements on the state’s public roads and bridges.

More to Come
More discussion will follow in subsequent posts.