Secretary Davey's Keynote at the MAPC Fall Council Meeting and Envisioning a Path to Better Transit Investment

This Wednesday morning, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey gave the keynote speech at the MAPC fall council meeting. In it, he outlined the DOT's progress in maintaining the Commonwealth's infrastructure and its role in facilitating community growth within the metropolitan Boston area. Of significant interest is his mention of the DOT's new complete streets training programme to help local DOTs better plan walkable neighbourhoods throughout the Commonwealth. New York State had hit several roadblocks with complete streets legislation, despite support and pressure from many advocacy groups, legislators, and AARP, until the unanimous passage of a complete streets bill this summer.

Secretary Davey also spoke about his push for transparency within the DOT starting with the introduction of quarterly accountability meetings as part of general 'efforts to make reform visible to the public.' The strongest message from his keynote was the issue of fiscal solvency and the DOT's challenge to find new revenue streams and protecting the Commonwealth's transport infrastructure from falling into neglect.

During the question and answer period, I asked him about the possibility of outlining and financing an Accelerated Transit Programme, akin to the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program. The ABP is fully funded by the state government and started as part of Governor Patrick's transportation reform, which also consolidated all Commonwealth transport management entities and transportation assets under MassDOT, created in 2009.

Secretary Davey noted that he is looking to work with legislators to allow for MBTA bridges to be included in an upcoming ABP2, though this is a far cry from a transit-specific infrastructure rehabilitation programme.

Potential for an Accelerated Transit Programme

The advantage of a separate ATP from the MBTA's 5-year Capital Investment Programme is the possibility of an ATP to be very targeted on a number of much larger, more visible projects, the latter of which is of particular interest to politicians and public officials for ribbon-cuttings and is an opportunity to bring hundreds of kilometers of track up to a state of good repair or higher.

An ATP would be the perfect programme to introduce a platform raising construction programme, DMU purchase for improved commuter rail service, commuter rail line electrification, or even the actual purchase of new Red and Orange Line cars (and not simply the planning and engineering of them for a wild $200 million, currently the only aspect of the project included in the 2011-2016 MBTA CIP). Might we even envision a proper build-out of the Silver Line as a fully traffic-separated light rail line? After all, Davey is now the chairperson of Massport, overseer of the area's major airports and cruise ports. May he be able to convince the board to contribute to the ATP toward a true airport light rail?

With Davey's position, the possibilities are endless. He has proven his competence as a personable leader who is able to establish and strengthen beneficial relationships, including that with the Commonwealth and its private railroads, CSX, Pan Am Railroads, and Norfolk Southern, a challenge New York State has found difficult in its attempts to build high speed rail between Albany and Buffalo.

Boston could be the first American city to consider modular freight transport utilising rail transit, right on the heels of Amsterdam's and Paris' current plans to utilise existing light rail to supplant commercial trucking within city limits. Service would have to be improved and signal systems upgraded to even entertain the idea of adding freight into an already troubled transit system, the perfect opportunity to turn an ATP into a public-private partnership that would bring in additional revenue to the Commonwealth for further investment in maintenance and expansion of its transport network.

But to what end investment in transit infrastructure? Public officials in the transit arena will name safety and accessibility as their top two priorities while quality of service and reliability are relegated to being tertiary priorities. While these priorities are not at odds, the most critical infrastructure investments to public opinion and use of public transport are weighted to service and reliability. Rarely do bus and train accidents happen, but they are certainly more publicised than a late bus or train, which has become acceptable and expected, even though the latter is more detrimental to the collective image and effectiveness of public transport.

This is the other advantage of a separate ATP. The CIP's smaller safety and accessibility programmes (the latter of which have mostly been completed with the help of accessibility grants from the federal government) can continue unabated while the ATP can focus on literally accelerating transit by raising quality of service and improving the effectiveness of existing infrastructure.

Of course, above all of these necessary calls for improved infrastructure is the essential lesson of transportation management: Organisation vor Electronik vor Beton because transit is on the line.