On Vision, Dollars and Transportation

Of all the possible reasons not to prioritize the North-South Rail Link, the notion that “there’s no money” is the least compelling.

This blog arises out of a recent conversation on Twitter with local journalists and advocates reacting to a joint op-ed by former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld advocating for construction of a North-South Rail Link (NSRL) in Boston. The NSRL would unite the disconnected halves of Greater Boston’s rail system. A follow-up story in Commonwealth argued that, regardless of its merits, there is simply no money available for NSRL. Gov. Dukakis has since responded.

Twitter is a difficult place to make a nuanced argument, so I’m going to try to do it here instead. While the immediate issue is a local one, many of the thoughts expressed here are relevant at the national scale. All views are my own.

  1. Of all the possible reasons not to prioritize the North-South Rail Link, the notion that “there’s no money” is the least compelling.
  2. There may be more compelling reasons. Growth in the Boston area is no longer pushing out toward the periphery of the region in areas largely served by commuter rail; rather, jobs and residences are increasingly concentrating in the regional core and in new “downtowns” like the Seaport and Kendall Square, Cambridge.
  3. The things we might do to address the urgent challenges and opportunities posed by those new growth patterns – rapid transit-style service on existing commuter rail lines, reallocation of street space to transit and active modes, pricing policies, support for shared-use modes – have little to do with drilling an expensive mile-long hole through the urban core.
  4. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the governors are right; that the benefits of NSRL, both to the public and in terms of averted costs for other, planned infrastructure improvements, significantly outweigh the costs. Would we build it?
  5. If you were to look at the current political and fiscal landscape, you’d have to question whether it is worth the effort. But let’s be frank: in the current political and fiscal landscape, almost everything transportation reformers believe is important is a heavy lift – even most of the “small stuff” listed above.
  6. The reason it is a heavy lift is that we have failed to force a discussion about the vision for our transportation future. We have thus far failed to grapple as a country with the implications for transportation of renewed urbanization, emerging technologies, the incredible costs (monetary and otherwise) of car dependence, or the imperative to deal with climate change.
  7. And so, we continue to rely largely on policy frameworks, funding schemes and habits of thought that were developed in a different era for conditions that no longer exist … with a few important but incremental tweaks made here and there over the years.
  8. The primary policy debate we have is about where to dig up the cash to keep that outmoded apparatus chugging on a little bit longer (ideally, in the view of our political leaders, without asking those who drive to pay a penny more).
  9. Those “realities” leave very little wiggle room for innovative thinking or action, at any scale. When we bound our vision to conform to those limits, we miss the opportunity to make the truly bold changes we know are necessary and beneficial.
  10. Is there a way out? I think there is. Political and fiscal “realities” are not immutable. They change. The way they change is when people create compelling and powerful visions of a better future, build broad-based support for them, and then work like heck to overcome the obstacles to making them a reality.
  11. Cities across the U.S. and across the globe are doing exactly this kind of revisioning. Look at what’s happening in S.F., L.A. … even places like Pittsburgh. And let’s not even talk about  cities elsewhere in the world. Lots of bold visions, grounded in community values and priorities, are being put forward that are being used to organize, mold and motivate action. And they’re starting to get results.
  12. Here in Boston, we’ve already had this kind of community reckoning once, through the famed Boston Transportation Planning Review in the early 1970s. We need to have a similar conversation again. Hopefully, with the city’s renewed 2030 planning efforts, we will.
  13. Let’s say that as a result of that conversation, we did decide to undertake a large infrastructure project – maybe NSRL, maybe the Urban Ring, maybe something else, take your pick. Is there a hope of ever funding it?
  14. Again, there are plenty of places that show the way forward, where advocates and public officials have patiently and creatively built coalitions and assembled funding packages over the course of years to make sweeping transportation changes a reality. California’s high-speed rail program is just one example. Often, those attempts meet with defeat multiple times before finally succeeding. Persistence matters.
  15. By contrast, constraining our vision to accommodate today’s conditions can lead to bad outcomes. It can lead to prioritizing projects based on the availability of private capital rather than the benefits to the public interest. Or missing the opportunity to move forward with important projects at moments when the political and fiscal winds suddenly shift, as occurred with the federal stimulus package.
  16. Advocates for transportation reform will only ever truly “win” if we can articulate a vision for how our solutions will make life healthier, more sustainable, more prosperous, and sweeter … and then do the difficult job of prioritizing and building support for the steps we need to take to make that vision happen.
  17. Allowing that vision to be constrained by today’s short-term political and fiscal reality, in my view, doesn’t make that job any easier. In fact, it makes it much more difficult – undercutting not only the potential for generational-scale projects like NSRL, but for the many smaller changes we hope to achieve as well.

Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.