The transportation system in Massachusetts faces a number of challenges. Roadway congestion, aging infrastructure, and unreliable rail systems present difficulties and inconveniences to commuters throughout the Commonwealth. Boston is ranked the eighth most congested city in the world, largely due to its geography, age, and density. Peak speed during the morning and afternoon commute is barely above 17 miles per hour. Additionally, a considerable number of bridges and roads have been found to be structurally deficient. Over 9 percent (9.2%) of bridges in Massachusetts were determined to be structurally deficient by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, and necessary repair costs on 4,768 bridges total an estimated $9.5 billion. The problem is also worsening as the state’s population and economy continue to grow, with travel times becoming longer and less predictable in recent years. Various obstacles have resulted in relatively slow progress on this issue. Potential solutions have been proposed by business organizations, elected officials, and reports by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation(MassDOT). It is important to note that plans to improve transportation in Massachusetts will likely need to maintain focus on the state’s goal of reducing emissions in the sector. Tackling congestion and related problems will likely require coordination and collaboration between state agencies, policymakers, and the private sector. Addressing issues related to the transportation system may result in additional benefits, such as increased access to jobs, enhanced socioeconomic equity, and addressing sustainability concerns in the sector.
Time of Day Travel Speeds
Source: INRIX Research
Congestion Relative to Free Flow, 7:00 – 7:59 AM
In August 2019, MassDOT released its Congestion in the Commonwealth Report to the Governor. According to this report, the state has reached a “tipping point with respect to congestion.” Congestion is worsened by traffic incidents, which can result in rippling delays because of the high interdependence of road networks. The problems have extended outside of the Greater Boston area into local roads partly due to bottlenecks, transportation network companies, and poor traffic control systems. Congestion in the Greater Boston area is worst at 8 AM and 5 PM, with 72 and 92 percent of roadway miles experiencing congestion at those respective times. The issue has also impacted public transit, meaning that MBTA train and bus systems are struggling to keep up with higher demand and increased ridership.
Increased congestion has resulted from a good economy that has led to a growing population and labor force. However, traffic issues have also led to reduced access to jobs for many in the Commonwealth. MassDOT explains that, in addition to being a transportation issue, it is a land use and housing issue. High access communities are often more expensive to live in, making housing affordability and availability critical to maximizing access to job opportunities.
Proposals aimed at solving transportation-related issues often involve increased investment in public transit systems. The MBTA’s $8 billion dollar capital investment planis designed to help address some of these problems through investment in the Commuter Rail, Green Line Transformation, I-495/I-90 Interchange Improvements, and other projects. Forty four percent of investments will focus on reliability and another 29 percent will focus on modernization. These programs are intended to improve the consistency and predictability of wait times, and also increase capacity and ridership. Accomplishing this would work to reduce traffic congestion on highways and city streets via investment in the Commuter Rail and improvements in subway lines. Further, as a result of a recent vote by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, a resolution passed that seeks to “transform the current commuter rail line into a significantly more productive, equitable and decarbonized enterprise.”
Transportation challenges have been addressed in other cities around the world through various means, which could be incorporated in potential solutions to similar issues in Massachusetts. Alleviating congestion and improving mobility could involve the implementation of new technologies. Traffic light timing, intelligent transportation system sensors, electronic road pricing, autonomous vehicles, and other technologiesmay present promising opportunities for reducing future congestion. Although there is no single solution to this complex issue, some of the recommendations made by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation include addressing bottlenecks, increasing MBTA capacity and ridership, producing more affordable housing near transit, and encouraging growth in less congested Gateway Cities. In July, the Baker-Polito Administration filed an $18 billion transportation bond billdesigned to invest in municipal partners, modernize the system, reduce emissions and improve resiliency, and address barriers to innovation. The bond bill is also aimed at supporting MassDOT’s recommendations through the implementation of a $2,000 per-employee tax credit to encourage telecommuting and remote work, as well as infrastructure investment and $50 million for the new Local Bottleneck Reduction Program.
Solutions proposed by the Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition include pricing incentives to encourage public transit use and travel during off-peak times. As outlined by MassDOT, another way to accomplish this could be through growth in Gateway Cities, which present additional opportunities to help alleviate traffic issues. Outside section 87 of the FY 2019 state budget called for a study of MBTA Commuter Rail fares to assess the fairness of the distance-based fare system currently in place and the effect of fare price on transportation choices. The impact of public transit affordability is demonstrated by a MassINC study finding that many residents in Gateway Cities are unable to afford the Commuter Rail, with annual fare costs totaling up to 15% of median household income.
MassDOT explains that state policy and employers could work to promote job growth in these cities and encourage the development of high density and affordable housing near Commuter Rail stations and transit services. This could also incentivize relocation from more expensive areas of Greater Boston and low-density areas that are longer distances from employment centers. Smart tolling and congestion pricing mechanisms are also being examined as ways to mitigate congestion. Collaborative efforts will likely be needed to address the complex challenges associated with the transportation system in Massachusetts, and transit authorities, the private sector, state agencies, lawmakers, and municipalities continue to assess ways in which it can be improved.