United States: Time To Look At A Metropolitan Transportation System

Last Updated: August 19 2015
Article by Jeffrey B. Mullan

Today is the day we no longer need to imagine the observation made by policymakers in the recent debates on transportation revenue – if you don’t think the MBTA is important to riders and non-riders alike, consider the Boston metropolitan area without it. Today, despite well plowed roads and reasonable weather, the region is at a standstill because the T has cancelled rail service due to the unprecedented storms.

One principal that provided the underpinning of the 2009 Transportation Reform Law is that we should govern our statewide transportation system in a manner that mirrors how we finance it. In that way, lawmakers hoped to align authority with responsibility. But, while what has resulted is better then what preceded it, more needs to be done to address fundamental inequities that remain a part of our system. More specifically, we need to more closely examine how people use the system in the same way we considered how best to finance and govern it.

Massachusetts has the MBTA, a large transit system that offers choice and mobility to a large population and area in and around Metropolitan Boston. It also has several Regional Transit Authorities that provide transit service in smaller metropolitan areas, but don’t (yet) offer widespread transportation choice to those regions. And, it has three main highway cost centers: a “Metropolitan Highway System” (MHS), consisting of the roads constructed as a part of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, plus the Mass Pike between South Bay in Boston and I-95, the Tobin Bridge, and the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels; the “Western Turnpike”, consisting of the Mass Pike from I-95 to the NY line; and the state highway system, which consists of the rest of the state highways in the Commonwealth. Outside of MassDOT’s control, Massachusetts also has several parkways under the control of the Department of Conservation and Recreation that are important regional roadways, and a large number of municipal roads. The MHS and the Western Turnpike are funded primarily with tolls. The state highway and parkway systems are funded primarily with the state’s tax on gasoline and other funding sources.

But, the highway systems MassDOT controls, each funded with different revenues, are not aligned in a way that reflects how we use them. There are also other, fundamental inequities in the overall system that require attention. Why, for example, does the MHS still stop at the Gilmore Bridge in the north and Southampton Street in the south, both of which are artificial boundaries that remain from the CA/T project limits? Why do we charge tolls on some interstates and not others, despite the fact that all interstates are similarly maintained in the post-merger era and (most) tollpayers pay the gas tax as well. And, why do we fund a regional system such as the MBTA with a statewide sales tax when people in much of the state may never benefit from the T or, indeed, from any transit system at all? More importantly, how are these facilities related and not related to each other?

A study of the data that is now available (and here and the Mass. Technology Collaborative’s annual report) can more closely examine these issues than ever before. Such a study could look to extend the MHS to capture more natural travel patterns by, for example, including all of I-93 between I-95, and portions of I-95 (Route 128) between its connections with I-93. We could also study whether portions of the MBTA’s subway and commuter rail systems might also properly be placed in the MHS to form a Metropolitan Transportation System that could share costs and better reflect how the system actually works.

The Supreme Judicial Court addressed the law concerning funding of an integrated transportation system in the 2012 case, Murphy et al vs. Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, in which the plaintiffs raised constitutional and other objections to the fact that MHS tolls where being used to pay for untolled portions of the MHS, noting: [W]here, as here, a public authority manages an integrated system of roadways, bridges, and tunnels, and chooses to impose tolls on only some of the roadways and tunnels in an amount sufficient to support the entire integrated system, its purpose does not shift from expense reimbursement to revenue raising simply because the toll revenues exceed the cost of maintaining only the tolled portions of the integrated system; and, later in the opinion: there is no constitutional prohibition against toll revenues from certain highways and tunnels being used to pay the expenses of other highways and tunnels, or even mass transportation expenses. The case gives us a roadmap to the full potential of the MHS to become the MTS, reflecting how the highway system works in concert with our public transportation system.

Transportation reform has become the way state transportation officials do business. Examining our system in a way that transportation customers use it is just another part of that effort.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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