What to do about Boston’s mounting congestion?

By Lawrence S. DiCara

Walter Muir Whitehill reminded us over fifty years ago that “the streets of Boston are conspicuously unsuited for automobile traffic.” I see no reason to disagree with that statement fifty years later. Boston will never be confused with a modern sterile city such as Los Angeles, with wide streets constructed on a grid. The city street, however, has now become a driving school - like experience for GPS-directed drivers who are told to “turn around” and then do so in the middle of the street. 

What do we do about it?

At this point in our city’s history, incrementalism with respect to transportation planning is quite unacceptable. We require bold thinking. We have neglected our public transportation system, resulting in its customers seeking out alternatives. We do not appreciate our inheritance of an underground transit network. As ABC has pointed out, deferring necessary work only means it will cost more, and imperil more people. The latest estimate is that to achieve a State of Good Repair for the MBTA alone will require $1.9 billion.

I do not understand why most of our leaders have all but forgotten about the proposed Silver Line tunnel, which for a relatively modest expenditure could provide easier access for people from Dudley Square and all along Washington Street via a singular system to South Station, the Seaport and the airport. It would connect people who want to work with the locations where there are jobs. Such an infrastructure expenditure would benefit hundreds of thousands directly and indirectly and simultaneously help diminish income inequality.

I would argue that even more than the Red-Blue Connector [which could be achieved by a subterranean airport-like moving sidewalk] and the North-South rail link, the Silver Line tunnel would be the easiest way to get people underground and to help unclog some of our city streets.

Perhaps, we could also find a way for South Boston-bound buses, which currently clog streets Downtown, especially when taking a left turn from the right-hand lane, to also use this tunnel to get across Fort Point Channel. 

We are no longer a poor city and we are no longer a poor state. The business community must step up and support new revenue sources which can pay for these needed changes. I know from personal experience that business leaders in Boston banded together to save the city from bankruptcy, rehabilitate Quincy Market, build a new highway system and create Norman Leventhal Park at Post Office Square. And that is only part of what I expect is a much longer list.

Gas taxes and auto excise taxes – classic user fees – are now insufficient to repair the roads, contrary to the intent when they were passed some 100 or so years ago. We must look to various sources of revenue so that those who use the roads should pay for their upkeep.

A few years ago, the fee for deed stamps was doubled to pay for the Community Preservation Act. The world did not end. 

Why not a $1.00 fee for each departure and arrival at Logan? Why not return the auto excise tax to its pre-Prop 2 ½ level? What about revisiting the gas tax? What about peak pricing on highways?

Rhode Island now tolls tractor trailers – should Massachusetts do likewise?  We should also review the option of assessing vehicle miles traveled. 

Lastly, why not a countercyclical pricing structure for the MBTA? Make it cheaper to ride during non-rush hours. That will spread out the daily commute and encourage millennials – who tend to work flexible hours – to use the T rather than TMCs. More than 40 years ago, it was called “dime time.” Incentives often work.

We also need to revisit, as New York City has recently done, the regulation of transportation network companies and their ride hailing apps, which have created a new category of unregulated drivers circling city streets – cabbies without medallions.  How should such for-profit users of our city streets pay their fair share for the upkeep of our roads and the managing of traffic congestion? 

One recommendation is to increase fees on transportation network companies. Currently, a $0.20 fee is assessed on each ride. If Boston could receive $.50 for each of the 34 million rides which occurred in 2017, those fees can provide the revenue to hire the personnel necessary to manage traffic and alleviate traffic congestion. Chicago is now at $0.67 per ride, which does not seem to be dramatically impacting business, given that the principal consumers have significant disposable income. On this issue, the city and the state must work together. 

A study by MAPC suggests that transportation network companies are actually damaging our public transportation system by drawing away passengers and revenues, and also are responsible for the extraordinary increase in traffic of which so many complain. A study in New York City found likewise, as did another in San Francisco. A recent study by Bruce Schaller, as reported in Commonwealth Magazine, confirms that what many thought would be part of the solution has become part of the problem. “About 60 percent of ride-hail car users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip,” Schaller writes in The New Automobility: Lyft, Uber and the Future of American Cities. 

The new economy 100 years ago was dominated by the automobile. Boston changed laws to accept that change. Today’s new economy is dominated by technology. How should government respond to be sure that those who benefit shall reimburse the public for the governmental investments in support of which all of us have been taxed? 

In our goal to be accepting of technologically-driven change, we cannot permit the disruptive economy to disrupt solely for the benefit of the few. We must tame technology. Encouraging competition cannot enable chaos.  Laws must be enforced.

Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney, a native of Dorchester and a former Boston city councillor.