A 21st century transportation system

On January 17, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

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By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Over the past several months, I have been very vocal during speaking engagements throughout the region about the need for a 21st century transportation plan, one that includes multimodal transit options to support a 21st century.  Along with my colleagues in the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, I’ve lobbied state leaders to allocate necessary funding not only to repair and maintain aging infrastructure, but also to extend our current transportation system with additional road, rail, transit, pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

On Monday, Governor Patrick and Secretary of Transportation Rich Davey introduced MassDOT’s new, long-range transportation plan. For some, the announcement will be the start of a debate over whether and how to fund our transportation system. But for me, there is no question. It’s time to make the financial commitment necessary to build a 21st century transportation system for the Commonwealth – one that will bring jobs and economic opportunity to every corner of the state.

It’s true that the plan is good news for Somerville. It would ensure the extension of the Green Line that we have fought so long and hard for. But MassDOT’s proposal is more than just a collection of transportation projects that dot the state. It marks a fundamental shift in how we view transportation. Rather than ignoring our crumbling bridges, ailing highways, and underfunded mass transit, this plan accepts and addresses a basic truth. If we want a thriving economy, we need to invest in – and maintain – our transportation network. The Governor, the Board of MassDOT, Secretary Davey, and their staff all deserve praise for the bold vision they have put forward to solve our transportation funding crisis.

It’s straightforward: They call for “an additional investment in our transportation assets of $5.2 billion over ten years.” These funds would go to road and highway repair. They would allow us to reduce the growing number of structurally deficient bridges. Needed funding to combat congestion on roadways across the state would finally be available. Existing public transit services would see an investment of $3.8 billion, and needed Registry and airport maintenance would be funded as well.

Later this week, Gov. Patrick will detail in his State of the State address to fund this investment. Undoubtedly, his financial plan will spark some interesting and challenging debates in the coming weeks. The choices will not be easy, but they will unlock more conversation that will be critical to securing the additional funding necessary to jump start the Governor’s plans, and gain some momentum. To those who deride these proposals as being too costly, I’d say that the time has come to listen to the Governor, and to your fellow citizens. To deny this measure would be to gamble on our future.

The problems that the Governor is trying to solve have been decades in the making, and he deserves tremendous credit for recognizing that they have to be solved now, once and for all.

Governor Patrick inherited a heavily indebted transportation system:  the average annual unfunded operational need is approximately $684 million. He inherited a system that was the victim of decades of short-sighted planning and fiscal mismanagement. Despite these challenges, however, he has lived up to his promise to push for modernization and improvement of that system.

If we’ve proven anything here in Somerville over the last ten years, it is that government can play a crucial role in economic development, and that nowhere is this role more important than in our transportation system.   And, without a healthy economy, all other governmental spending – education, healthcare, aid to cities and towns, parks and open space – suffers. In that sense, transportation funding is one of the most important things that government can do. And this Governor gets it.

Over the past six years, the Governor’s team has invested significantly in transportation and managed to improve its delivery throughout the Commonwealth. They launched the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program, increased the amount of Chapter 90 funds that go to local governments to assist in roads and other infrastructure, avoided transit service cuts with state assistance and tripled capital investment – from $515M in 2007 to $1.4B in 2013.

Governor Patrick has achieved an astonishing amount already in his six years in office, but if he succeeds with this transportation funding plan, it will be his crowning achievement and his enduring legacy. But it’s not just his fight, it’s ours too.

What will follow in the next few months is a vigorous debate over what we value as a people here in Massachusetts.  But I think the buck stops here. I urge our legislators in the State House to pass this reform as quickly as possible. We need to do this because otherwise we will be left with a 20th century transportation system for a 21st century commonwealth.

 

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