As part of their Business Leadership Series, the Middlesex 3 Coalition (M3) held a panel discussion on transportation policy and legislation on September 26. The meeting provided the attendees with a chance to hear and discuss various perspectives on the current state of transportation challenges along the Route 3 corridor and to consider an innovative combination of potential solutions to make real progress and reverse the steadily worsening local and commuting transportation picture in the area.
Concerns on social justice, including tempering the largely regressive nature of much of the Commonwealth’s transportation funding resources such as fixed income tax rates and various transportation user costs and fees, were also voiced as relevant to all potential solutions, as was the need for more affordable housing in the area.
Lowell – Burlington Shuttle to Launch on October 1
M3 President Paul Cohen (Chelmsford Town Manager) and Executive Director Stephanie Cronin kicked off the meeting with a warm welcome to everyone. Cronin highlighted the most recent major accomplishments of the coalition, including the imminent launching of a “restaurant” shuttle between Lowell and Burlington on October 1.
The shuttle’s goal is to improve employment opportunities in the Lowell area by providing an affordable transportation option from Lowell to the large base of restaurant and retail businesses in the Burlington area.
Cronin thanked State Representative Ken Gordon, State Senator Cindy Friedman, and Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce President Rick Parker, for their key support in the successful funding of this important project.
Noting the M3 Board’s commitment to this and related transportation solution projects, Cronin announced that Erin Kokinda (currently the M3 Membership and Marketing Director) will be the new Director for M3’s Transportation Management Association (TMA), responsible for this new shuttle as well as the many other M3 TMA services in the area.
Transportation Upgrades Requires Major Funding
Before the panel discussion, several speakers helped set the context. Tom Ryan, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, A Better City https://www.abettercity.org/ reviewed a February 2019 report by his organization to document the funding challenges facing the Commonwealth over the next 40 years. Click the following link to read a pdf of the full report, An Update on Transportation Finance 2019
Ryan highlighted the funding gap challenges for roads and bridges, the MBTA, and other state and regional transportation needs. A Better City projects that to achieve a state of good repair, increase capacity on key elements of the transportation network, and to address other key findings in the MassDOT report of December 2018 https://www.mass.gov/orgs/commission-on-the-future-of-transportation, funding in the neighborhood of $50 billion will be needed over the next 20 years. He noted the amount might seem intimidating, but it is not out of sync with other major transportation initiatives planned, and in some cases underway, across the country.
Charlie Ticotsky, Policy Director for Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) https://www.t4ma.org/ reviewed several of T4MA’s major policy positions to help address key transportation challenges in the state.
T4MA is calling for a 25 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase, implementation of congestion pricing / adding tolls on select highways within the Route 128 belt, initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, regional ballot initiatives to raise more funds locally, and finally a 6.25% fee add to Lyft / Uber-type services tempered with shared ride incentives.
State Representative Michelle Ciccolo reviewed a bill she has filed, Transportation Improvement Districts (House Bill 2983), to allow public-private partnerships to create first mile / last mile shuttle buses. Similar to the business improvement district concept, a fee would be levied on private property owners to create the service, but the municipality and state are also required to participate in the funding for the service, each at a 20% level. This rate may rise to a 25% minimum as the bill moves through the legislative process. A detailed project plan, including governing structure, finances, marketing, ridership, and related studies and analyses before the start of service is also required by the bill. The plan must support a minimum of three years of operation for the service to gain traction, and it needs to be brought before the local governing body and have the support of 51% of the property owners affected with certain small property owner protections and exemption options. The bill allows for flexibility of the fee methodology, but the fee cannot exceed 5% on affected property owners. If implemented, a transportation improvement district would then sunset after six years and require reauthorization to continue.
Panel Q&A Notes Major Traffic Woes in Area Towns and Adds Ideas for Improvement
Rick Reed, M3 Emeritus Board Member, M3 Transportation Subcommittee Chair, and former Bedford Town Manager, then introduced the panel for the Q & A portion of the meeting.
The panel included State Representatives Michelle Ciccolo (D-Lexington), Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), and Tami Gouveia (D-Acton); Tom Ryan of A Better City; and Charlie Ticotsky of T4MA.
Moderator Reed posed the question, ‘What are the state representatives hearing from their various constituents related to regional transportation?’
Ciccolo, Gordon, and Gouveia noted that citizens are frustrated with traffic congestion, and stressed with long and unpredictable commutes, cut-through traffic in their communities, and limited affordable and frequent transportation options.
They discussed the improvement initiatives that can be leveraged, including some successful first mile / last mile shuttles and heavily-utilized remote parking lots with frequent shuttles for added parking capacity near commuter rail stations.
They also noted that businesses they hear from understand that significant transportation-related investments are needed and that such investments will yield positive results. However, cautions around the difficulty of raising taxes, such as an increase in the gasoline tax, and the danger of unaffordable commuter rail ticket prices and the general regressive nature of many aspects of transportation funding were stressed, as was the need for more affordable housing in the area to help reduce average commute distances.
One panel member, while acknowledging the importance of strategic and long term planning, felt the immediate need to implement short lead-time solutions and to increase service quality before any additional increased costs for the transportation consumer. The concept of tolls on roads or a per-mile usage fee to address both revenue needs and reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles was discussed at length but with no clear consensus.
Concerns raised included potential unintended consequences such as pushing drivers off the main roads and adding to cut through traffic on local roads and in the worst-case, driving businesses and workers out of Massachusetts and into southern New Hampshire.
Although also mentioned, adding lanes on Route 3 should only be considered in the context of moving more people, not more single-occupancy vehicles.
A focus should be on the quality of the trip with comfort and convenience such as robust WiFi, so people choose the mode because they want to.
The panel generally concurred that automated vehicles are coming and it is up to us to prepare our infrastructure for them; it is not a question of “if” but “when” and it will be soon.
Other issues addressed included being forced to drive into Boston because Alewife always fills up before the end of the morning commute window; the high cost of parking in Boston; the legacy orientation of the MBTA’s service in the area; and the fact that it is Boston-centric, and there is no MBTA service along Route 128 and Route 3.
Reed wrapped up the discussion with thanks to the panel, noting the challenging yet interesting information for M3 as the coalition moves ahead on working on many of these transportation issues.
About Middlesex 3
Middlesex 3 is comprised of ten communities in the Route 3 corridor: Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Lexington, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, and Westford. The participating communities share a common goal of fostering economic development, job growth and retention, diversification of the tax base, and enhancement of quality of life. M3 members include stakeholders in local government, business, finance, education, and development who have the combined resources to constructively develop and implement many regional transportation improvement opportunities.
To learn more, click https://www.middlesex3tma.com/
Corrections: There are 10, not 9, communities in the Middlesex 3 coalition, and Tami Gouveia is from Acton, not Lowell.