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Coming up: Yet another state report on transportation needs

December 1, 2018

BOSTON (AP) — No one would fault Massachusetts residents for being skeptical that an upcoming report from a special commission on the future of transportation will do much to ease their daily commute.

There have, after all, been other studies in past years from government-appointed task forces, think tanks and advocacy groups. Many contained dire warnings of a transportation system in danger of collapsing under the weight of misguided policies, deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate financing, crushing debt or just plain neglect.

These well-intentioned studies often included detailed recommendations, a few of which actually went on to be adopted by lawmakers and state officials. Yet commuters still grapple with clogged highways, frequently unreliable public transit, and uncertainty over whether their tax, toll and fare dollars are being spent as efficiently as possible.

“The public is right to have a little fatigue around ‘Hey, here’s another plan, here’s another report.’ We tend to do too much of that in transportation policy,” said Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of statewide interest groups.

Can the report of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth, expected to be released publicly this month, succeed while others largely gather dust?

“We think it will be very important for this report to not just have long-term recommendations about the year 2040 but to also have very specific recommendations of immediate next steps to take to move us in the right direction,” said Dempsey, who is among those looking forward to recommendations from the 18-member panel.

Acknowledging Massachusetts lacked a singular, comprehensive blueprint for transportation, Baker formed the commission a year ago through an executive order and tasked it with developing plans that account for “impending disruptions due to changes in technology, climate, demographics and more.”

Chaired by Steven Kadish, the governor’s former chief of staff, the panel includes experts on a range of topics from urban planning to climate change and autonomous vehicles.

While expected to present various “scenarios” for the state’s transportation needs over the next two decades, Kadish has suggested the report is unlikely to delve deeply into funding questions that have vexed policymakers for decades.

In 2007, a grim report from the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission concluded that nearly all the state’s transportation agencies were running structural deficits; that conditions of many roads, bridges and transit systems were rapidly declining; and that no money was available to expand or enhance transportation options.

An analysis last year by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation showed capital spending on transportation doubled in the 10 years following that report, and the state spent $16 billion on roads and bridges. Still, infrastructure woes have persisted and in some cases mounted, in part due to the failure of the Boston-area transit system known as the T to curtail operating expenses, the group said.

While the decision to sidestep financial questions might prompt further skepticism about the commission’s findings, Dempsey hopes the report will endorse key policy initiatives that could improve the commuting experience without requiring huge expenditures of cash.

In public comments submitted to the commission, Transportation for Massachusetts offered several proposals, including a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by discounting tolls for motorists who travel during off-peak hours. Baker vetoed a toll discount proposal last summer, saying he wanted to study it further but not ruling out future support for the concept.

Dempsey also welcomes the commission’s focus on the potentially disruptive impacts of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles.

“If we think congestion is bad now, imagine a world where you can have a robot or zombie car ... driving around, circling the block with no one in it and competing for space on the Mass Pike with you during the morning commute,” he said.

The Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said in recommendations submitted to the commission that public transportation agencies must be innovative and willing to embrace technological change if they hope to compete for customers in the future.

“Pioneer believes it is critical, in a time of dramatic transportation change, that the T have a singular and easily measured strategic goal: to increase ridership,” the organization said.

Ridership dropped by 2 percent during the first three months of the current fiscal year, resulting in $3 million less in fare revenue than projected, the T’s control board reported.

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