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Greater Boston Traffic Congestion Will Only Get Worse

December 19, 2018
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By Katie Lannan

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- With roughly 600,000 new residents expected to join the state by 2040 -- the equivalent of adding another Boston-sized city -- traffic congestion will likely get worse unless action is taken to address it, the head of a state transportation commission said Wednesday.

“With respect to the highway system in particular, the commission expects that keeping congestion at reasonable levels will rely more on the efforts to manage the demand for existing capacity than increasing its supply,” Steve Kadish, who chaired Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation, said at a Transportation for Massachusetts event delving into the panel’s findings.

“While selective highway improvements will be necessary, the era of major highway construction is long gone,” Kadish said. “Congestion mitigation and better transit must go hand-in-hand because neither building nor managing congestion by itself will work.”

As Kadish spoke, just before 9 a.m., the roughly five-mile trip from Somerville to the downtown Boston venue where the event was held, the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education auditorium, would have taken a driver 33 minutes, or a little more than 9 miles per hour for a route that’s mostly highway.

A 12-mile drive from Braintree was projected at 47 minutes, and the 22 miles from Framingham would have taken just over an hour.

At the same time, Red Line commuters were grappling with the crowding and after-effects of earlier delays caused by a disabled train taken out of service at JFK/UMass and a signal problem at Davis. Disabled trains and signal problems are common occurrences.

“Transportation congestion is one of the greatest impediments to our economy and is a hindrance to quality of life,” Kadish said. “With the anticipated growth of population and jobs, it is likely that congestion will only get worse without action, but there’s no silver bullet. Congestion is the product of many factors, and there is no single solution that will alleviate it.”

The report, unveiled last Friday, makes 18 broad long-term recommendations, including to “prioritize” investment in public transit, provide better mobility options in rural areas, develop a strategy to support autonomous vehicle development, and enable electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the state.

Commission member Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said prioritizing public transit may seem “like a no-brainer” to some, but the panel “heard a lot of people saying, the combination of autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service and transportation apps are going to make public transportation essentially obsolete, and the government shouldn’t really be investing much resources in it anymore because these new technologies are going to take care of that.”

“The commission took a very large look at that and came to a different conclusion, that those technologies are really important, we want to welcome them, we want to move forward, but we don’t see them as replacing a public transportation system. In fact, we need to double down on transportation,” Kimmell said, drawing applause from the audience.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts took a step aligned with another commission recommendation, joining a coalition of eight Northeast and mid-Atlantic states that will work over the next year to try to develop a market-based system to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

Kimmell, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in Massachusetts and nationwide, and called it “a matter of simple math” that there is no way the state can meet its Global Warming Solutions Act emissions reduction mandates “without dramatically reducing the emissions from transportation.”

One of the commission’s recommendations aimed at reducing emissions is to establish a goal that all new cars, light trucks and buses sold in Massachusetts be electric -- or otherwise meet equivalent emissions standards -- by 2040.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards said the messaging to encourage people to shift to electric vehicles or otherwise change their behavior should not focus on urgency alone. She encouraged policymakers to “set a table that’s equitable from the very beginning.”

“Urgency is not what’s going to get people in electric cars,” Edwards said. “Being cool, marketing to them, making it something that is part of their lives and accessible, that’s what’s going to happen. So to remember always it’s not enough to have the infrastructure, you need people to want to use it,” she said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz quipped that there used to be only two types of cars in his city -- “the blue Prius and the silver Prius” -- and said many drivers there have now embraced electric vehicles.

“But of course the challenge is, if you’re going to drive to Boston, where am I going to charge? Are there going to be charging stations along the way? Can I reliably do that and come back in a day?” he said.

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