Commentary: Isn’t it time to stop subsidizing suburban sprawl?

A commuter rail train entered Uphams Corner station on the MBTA’s Fairmount Line. Chris Lovett photo

By Matt Glynn, Special to the Reporter

To residents of Dorchester: Congratulations on being among the greenest and most environmentally conscious residents in the state.

Unfortunately, members of our House of Representatives aren’t yet willing to accept our financial reward.

As citizens of the commonwealth’s urban core, many who live in Dorchester trade in climate-controlled drives from home to work and back for the alternative of walking from home to bus stop to subway to work and back. Urban commuting results in the average Dorchester zip code emitting 39.7 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per resident, according to a UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network study in 2013.

This is drastically lower when compared to suburban zip codes (Milton 60.5; Duxbury 68.4; Weston 82.3). When looking at emissions related to the transportation sector, the discrepancy grows shockingly large. Every zip code in Dorchester emits between 5 and 10 tons of CO2 equivalent due to transportation while most of our suburban neighbors emit between 20 and 30 tons.

Bostonians have long endured neglect by the state Department of Transportation. The 2018 budget for the Transportation Trust Fund, which largely funds roads, is $303 million while the MBTA budget is $127 million, according to MassDOT’s FY2018 budget summary. Adding further insult to injury: In 2015, the MBTA brought in $646 million in fares and ads payments while tolls and ads on roads brought in $451 million, according to a review by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Not only do we miss out on the transportation revenues, but we also bear the cost of higher asthma rates and higher rates of cancer due to increased levels of pollution in the city.

Let’s not forget the Big Dig. Finished for the most part in 2007, the biggest infrastructure project Massachusetts ever undertook did wonders for suburban commuters traveling to and through the city. But after the roadwork blew through the budget, funding for the Silver Line and other mass transit projects has been an afterthought. This overdevelopment of roads versus public transportation plays a large role in the gridlock that ties up the city today.

The completion of three new stops on the Fairmount commuter rail line and a fourth planned for Mattapan in 2019 has been a welcome addition to local transit, but that is not far enough. Residents situated along the line have been calling for a shift from a suburban style commuter rail system to a rapid transit line dubbed the “Indigo Line” with frequent service similar to the Red and Orange Lines, a switch that would improve commute times and employment options for riders. While former Gov. Deval Patrick announced plans to fund the rapid transit changeover to the “Indigo Line,” Governor Baker has since delayed the project indefinitely.

The state still hasn’t learned its lesson. Instead of funding improvements to the “Indigo Line,” it has supported a $150 million project to add lanes to I-95 over the last decade plus. The recent plans by the state to undergo a $1 billion rehab of the I-90 viaduct in Allston while scrapping plans to build “West Station” on the land below further shows that Boston’s State House delegation should be fighting harder for transit equity.

The state transportation budget subsidizes driving long distances to the detriment of public transportation. The cost of a commuter rail ride from Braintree to South Station is $13.50 round trip, or $207.75 for a monthly pass; from Plymouth to South Station it’s $23 a day, or $353 a month. The tolls on Route 3 and the Expressway are $0. Given these generous road subsidies and unreliable service on the commuter rail, it is easy to understand why most commuters choose to drive.

Massachusetts has passed legislation meant to reduce greenhouse gases by the year 2020 to 25 percent below the 1990 emission level, and to at least 80 percent by 2050. Given the current state of federal affairs, those goals only become more challenging. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has proposed subsidizing coal and nuclear power and mandating offshore oil drilling. This creates direct competition between the state’s more than 100,000 clean energy jobs and subsidized out-of-state fossil fuel interests.

Fortunately for us, the solution is surprisingly simple, and we can go a long way toward it without a muddy political discussion of increasing regulations, raising taxes, or raising spending. A bill (S 1821) promoting a revenue neutral carbon price and rebate system is currently under consideration in the state Senate. Rebate funds would come through a carbon fee on fossil fuel emissions in the transportation and home heating sector. One hundred percent of the funds would then be redistributed to residents and businesses.

If passed into law, the higher price on fossil fuels would create an incentive for more people to use public transportation. Increased demand for public transportation would result in more frequent and more reliable service over time. Suburban commuters would be more likely to use public transportation, which will attract additional support to fund operations. This would then spur investment and create jobs throughout our urban transportation infrastructure. Whether you side with the scientific consensus behind global warming or believe it to be a hoax, all residents of Boston should be able to agree that a carbon pricing system will create benefits for urban residents.

In areas like Dorchester, where residents lead a relatively green lifestyle and support public transportation, families would receive a rebate much larger than what they paid in extra fuel costs. This would have the added benefit of making our tax system more progressive since lower-income families, especially in urban areas, drive less and have smaller homes that require less heating fuel. Since the rebate would be applied equally, these families would find themselves better off financially.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the first Dorchester legislator to back carbon pricing, has stated that passage of S 1821 “would be a big win both for our climate and for Boston’s lower-income communities.” She also has asserted that S 1821 “would institute fiscally progressive measures” and “provide significant financial benefits to neighborhoods like Dorchester, that have a far smaller carbon footprint than most.”

Last May, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Massachusetts hasn’t met its obligations on greenhouse gas emissions and must fulfill them via legislation. Our representatives should fight to adjust the status quo system that relies on the state picking winners and losers and giving subsidies to larger-scale power plants. This approach directs money to the wealthy and corporations with access to fund large power production.

Carbon pricing, on the other hand, allows all residents to capture the economic benefits of clean energy without unnecessary intervention from Beacon Hill. Even renters can benefit through increased access to community solar programs.

Sixty-nine members of the Legislature are sponsors of S 1821. Surprisingly, Senators Linda Dorcena Forry and Chang-Diaz are the only members of the Dorchester delegation to join in the effort.

As the constituents most likely to benefit from the carbon price and rebate system, Dorchester residents need to call on all our legislators to remember the lessons of the Big Dig and stand up to do their part to create an equitable system that rewards sustainable living, reduces pollution, and helps alleviate gridlock on our roads. Of the 20 legislators representing Boston, 14 publicly support a carbon pricing & rebate bill. Additional support from Reps. Evandro Carvalho, Dan Cullinane, Russell Holmes, and Dan Hunt would go a long way in showing a united urban coalition.

Dorchester can generate most of the power needed for homes and cars through solar panels on our roofs and geothermal heat in our land. A united urban delegation can help Dorchester residents capture the economic value of producing our own power with local labor working to build and maintain clean energy.

Our wealthy suburban neighbors are actually asking to reward us for our greener lifestyle. S 1821 has been presented by state Sen. Michael Barrett of Middlesex County who represents Weston, Lexington, and Newton (likely net financial losers if the bill passes). Dorchester’s politicians need to take advantage of this gift and move to stop subsidizing dirty suburban sprawl and out-of-state competition for local jobs.