Sen. Joe Boncore and Rep. Livingstone were on hand via Zoom for the Beacon Hill Civic Association Traffic and Parking Committee meeting on Tuesday, March 30, to discuss transportation policy at the State House.
“Public transit is a public good,” said Sen. Boncore, who has served as co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee for nearly three years, in discussing the need to create a more reliable, efficient and equitable transportation system, as well as one that’s climate resilient.
On Feb. 19, Sen. Boncore filed what he calls the “Transportation New Deal” –a 49-page omnibus bill comprising polices that, he said, Massachusetts must adopt to move its transportation system forward, including implementing fare-free MBTA and RTA (Regional Transit Authority) bus service.
Additionally, Sen. Boncore told those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting that as opposed to just shuttling commuters into the city in the morning and back to the suburbs at night: “We want the commuter rail to be rapid transit with service that’s more frequent and more reliable.”
To this end, Sen. Boncore hopes to see a pilot program with more frequent service on the commuter rail and at reduced rates during the middle of the day.
“As we come out of the pandemic, we need to incentivize people to get out of their vehicles and back into public transportation,” said Sen. Boncore, adding that his bill lays the framework for how to achieve this goal.
Sen. Boncore pointed to what he called a “mass exodus” from the commuter rail system, with ridership dipping to 5 to 8 percent of pre-pandemic rates, while the MBTA has seen its ridership dwindle to 12 or 15 percent in the same timeframe, although, he said, the Blue Line has recently seen an uptick in ridership to 20 percent of its pre-pandemic rates.
As for how he plans to fund initiatives like the free bus service, which is estimated to cost $86 million, Sen. Boncore said the money would come from capital projects to expand commuter rail and bus service funded via bonds and “with a lot of help from the federal government.”
Moreover, Sen. Boncore anticipates a major infusion of federal funds coming to Massachusetts from an infrastructure package, he said, “in the trillions of dollars.”
Sen. Boncore’s bill also proposes increasing fees on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, as well as raising the state’s gas tax 12 cents over three years.
Rep. Livingstone said Beacon Hill is unique in that stations for all the MBTA’s subway lines are located in or just outside the neighborhood, so its residents tend to walk and use public transportation more than people from other parts of the city.
Besides legislation he filed last year to raise fees for ride-hailing apps, which, he said, was “unfortunately” vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Rep. Livingstone has also filed a bill that would tax publicly-privately-owned garages, with revenue going towards public transit and public-transit infrastructure improvements, as well as for charging stations for electric vehicles.
Rep. Livingstone also voiced his support for a bill filed by Sen. William Brownsberger that would authorize the use of cameras for traffic enforcement to issue tickets for violations like running a red light, blocking the box, or parking or driving in a dedicated bus lane.
Rep. Livingstone, along with Sen. Sal DiDomenico, also drafted language included in the state’s $17 billion, 10-year State Transportation Bond that would reconfigure Storrow Drive to create three new acres of greenspace on the Esplanade between the Longfellow Bridge and the Charles River.
The future of that project now hinges on the planned Mass Eye and Ear expansion, however, which included plans to build an underground garage, and has presumably been on hold since Mass General Brigham (formerly Partners HealthCare) purchased Mass Eye and Ear three years ago.
“Storrow isn’t going to happen without Mass Eye and Ear,” said Rep. Livingstone, who added that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would have to build the garage in order for the project to move forward. “And I don’t see MassDOT doing that.”
Rep. Livingstone added, “I think COVIUD really put a stop to a lot of MassDOT’s efforts and that one seems like it’s definitely on hiatus.”
Besides Mass Eye and Ear, Rep. Livingstone told the committee, chaired by Ben Starr, there are a lot of “interconnected projects” he’s keeping an eye on, including the proposed MBTA Red-Blue connector, the planned redevelopment of the Charles F. Hurley Building, and the replacement of viaducts going into Charles Circle.