Traffic congestion rising to top of Beacon Hill to-do list

FILE PHOTO: An Australian bank robber’s getaway was foiled Wednesday when he was caught by police after getting stuck in traffic. (Photo: Gellinger/Pixabay)

BOSTON — Beacon Hill leaders are increasingly focusing on the struggles faced by Massachusetts residents trying to navigate the state's clogged roads and troubled public transit system.

Anyone who's tried to get to work, school or the grocery store - whether by car, bus, commuter rail, subway or bicycle - already knows rush hour traffic is stretching out to gobble up more of the morning and evening commutes. Traffic jams that were once inconvenient are tipping toward the epic, and there's no guarantee a trip on the subway won't end with riders being led from a derailed car.

Transportation woes aren't new to Massachusetts, of course. Clogged downtown roads pressured city leaders in Boston to open the country's first subway line in 1897. A century later the state was working on the Big Dig, which would transform transportation through downtown Boston.

A report released this week by the state Department of Transportation at the behest of Gov. Charlie Baker is the latest attempt by the state to get its arms around its multiple transportation challenges.

The report included a series of recommendations including building more affordable housing closer to public transportation, working with businesses to create new commuting routes to jobs, encouraging telecommuting, and continuing upgrades at the MBTA.

Baker highlighted one proposal in the report that calls for the creation of new "managed lanes" on one or more highways in greater Boston. The tolled lanes would be added to roads without taking away existing lanes- giving drivers the option of driving for free in the existing lanes or paying to use the tolled lane. Carpools, buses and vans carrying large numbers of people could use the tolled lane at no cost.

The Republican governor said the report also took a long look at "congestion pricing" or smart tolling and found the practice of using existing toll gantries to hike tolls during peak travel times would be hard to put into place in Massachusetts.

"This type of congestion pricing would only punish drivers who work fixed shifts or have no flexibility for obligations like school and child care drop offs," Baker told reporters as he released the report Thursday.

Not everyone agreed.

David Keith, an assistant professor of system dynamics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said in a statement that congestion pricing has been shown to be "the most effective tool for reducing traffic in congested regions" like Greater Boston.

"That Gov. Baker questions the effectiveness and viability of congestion pricing is a bit of a head-scratcher," he said.

Matt Casale, transportation campaign director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said there are several good ideas in the report but questioned the idea of adding tolled lanes to existing roads.

"We have known for decades that building new highway lanes, even if they are tolled, doesn't fix congestion," Casale said. "It encourages more driving, which increases air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions."

Casale said planners should instead look to other options like increasing dedicated bus lanes.

Yet another variable in the state's traffic mix, particularly in the greater Boston area, is the impact of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Baker has proposed legislation that would push ride-hailing companies to provide more information about where and when they're picking up and dropping off riders - particularly during rush hours when those stops could cause traffic delays.

"Communities need to know where and at what time the majority of the pickups and drop offs are happening in their community, so they can put systems in place to limit the impact these services have," Baker said.

MORE: Gov. Baker calls for $18B investment in Mass. transportation

Comments on this article