Lack of affordable housing is worsening state's congestion problems

BOSTON — The Boston area is one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. It’s also one of the hottest job markets.  Many workers, however, have been forced to move further away from their jobs just to be able to afford housing.

All those longer commutes are actually making the region’s congestion problems even worse as drivers spend longer stretches on roads that were not meant to handle this volume of traffic.

Some experts believe the confluence of these factors could cast a dark shadow over the region’s future.

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At the Natick rest stop, many drivers vented their frustration to Boston 25 News about their commutes these days.

One woman said the roads are very crowded and the situation is unpredictable.  She said she always has to set aside extra time for her commute.

Another woman noted that the back-ups start sooner than they once did.  “It starts to get busier and busier further and further west.”

Mark Melnik, the director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the Donahue Institute at UMass says about two-thirds of the population growth in the state since 2010 has happened within greater Boston, despite the area making up only about 45% of the state’s population.

“When you think about it in those terms, it’s like we’re having this higher concentration of people and activity," said Melnik.

The problem is housing production hasn’t kept pace and neither has the region’s transportation systems, according to Melnik.  “We’ve haven’t added more transportation options for folks in any meaningful way, but we’re having more people trying to get downtown.”

In August, the Baker Administration released a report on the region's crippling traffic, and how its impact is starting to go beyond just longer travel times.

“Congestion in Massachusetts has worsened to the point where it now actually reduces people’s access to jobs,” said State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

One of the long-standing benefits to the Massachusetts economy is that the area is compact and people, particularly those within the I-495 belt, have had access to hundreds of thousands of jobs, explained Pollack.

But today’s traffic volume is changing that situation.  “We have one of the worse problems when it comes to the degree to which congestion over the past five years has effectively shrunk that access, which is why we’re talking about housing and jobs location,” added Pollack.

It’s important to take this broader view of the situation, said Suzanne LePage, a Professor of Civil Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“You have to build housing and jobs within close proximity of each other.”

If commutes can’t be shortened, Melnik says it’s possible the region’s economy could suffer.  “The economy is strong now, but where are we going to be five years from now, 10 years from now, if you hit a tipping point where people, say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to live there because it takes me three hours in the car every single day to go to work.’”

It’s something Kevin Rivera thinks about as he commutes from Brockton to Wilmington every day.

“Right now, to get home takes me at least an hour and 45 minutes. Back then, maybe an hour and ten minutes, so it increases.”

>> Previous: Traffic congestion rising to top of Beacon Hill to-do list

State leaders had originally hoped to act this fall on a bill to fund transportation improvements, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo said just last week that any action will now have to wait until the beginning of 2021.

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