Opinion

Taking a look at tackling traffic

Morning traffic heads toward the Tobin Bridge as commuters make their way into Boston in this May 2, 1996 aerial photo. (Associated Press) (SUSAN WALSH)

Earlier this year, the nation’s leading traffic data firm named Greater Boston’s roads the most congested in the country. And if you ask people who live in Massachusetts, the most frustration with our transportation status quo is felt by those driving in from communities like Lynn and Saugus in the suburbs surrounding Boston.

In a poll of 1,200 Massachusetts voters conducted in March, the respected MassInc Polling Group asked about perceptions, irritations and potential solutions around the state’s transportation system. And on key questions, residents who live in the population band between Interstate 95 and the city of Boston expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction. Not surprisingly, they also expressed the most openness to new investments and creative problem-solving to make things better.

For these residents, especially commuters who work full time, the problem of traffic congestion is pervasive in their lives. More than 8 out of 10 said traffic makes them leave earlier in the day. More than half have been made late to work by traffic, and roughly a third have considered moving away or changing jobs — an ominous indicator for our innovation economy, which relies on our highly educated workforce.

Understandably, voters in this suburban swath are desperate for relief and eager for solutions:

  • Among these residents, transportation ranked second only to housing, and ahead of jobs and education, among issues that state government should prioritize.
  • Contrary to conventional political wisdom, a whopping 82 percent said new public revenue should be raised to support transportation.
  • More than 8 out of 10 support the use of discounted tolls during off-peak travel times to lessen congestion during peak periods.
  • Nearly 3 out of 4 support a carbon-trading plan, similar to one that has worked successfully in the electric utility industry, that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are a product of congestion, and generate new revenue that could be used for both transportation and climate change initiatives.

These numbers were higher than for any other region of the state, but they were echoed by residents statewide. For example, across the commonwealth, just a little less than 8 out of 10 residents support raising new revenue for transportation.

Thankfully, the state’s political establishment has begun to advance measures that would improve our transportation system. Gov. Charlie Baker has led a group of governors from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in endorsing the carbon-trading Transportation Climate Initiative, and they are now in the process of designing it.

The Legislature has voted in favor of a “time-of-day” tolling pilot, a policy that has been proven to reduce traffic elsewhere in the country. Gov. Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation has endorsed this concept, describing congestion as “one of the greatest impediments to our economy and a hindrance to our quality of life.”

To be sure, new ideas in policy making can be politically challenging. But state and local political leaders can take comfort in the fact that their constituents are not only supporting them but hoping that they lead the way. Among the beleaguered citizens who live in the suburbs between Interstate 95 and the city of Boston, nearly three out of four want “urgent action” to ease congestion. In any political context, that’s a landslide.

Chris Dempsey is director of Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), a coalition of more than 70 member and partner organizations with a stake in improving transportation across the commonwealth.

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