The T Has A Vision For Revitalizing The Commuter Rail. Now It Needs A Plan To Pay For It

Download Audio
An MBTA Commuter Rail train on the Haverhill line travels through Andover. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An MBTA Commuter Rail train on the Haverhill line travels through Andover. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The MBTA's Fiscal Management and Control Board recently approved ambitious plans for the commuter rail that include electric trains and more frequent service. The goal is rapid transit that stretches beyond Boston.

Sounds great. But how much is it going to cost?

"It's difficult to put a precise number on it now, but obviously it is not going to be cheap," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak told WBUR.

Poftak is right, it won't be cheap. The plan draws from a rail study that suggests the upgrades could fall somewhere between $10 billion and almost $29 billion. And Poftak said it could take at least two to four years to buy the electric trains envisioned in the plan.

Poftak said what the board approved earlier this month was a vision for the future of the commuter rail.

"Now we have to get to work on putting in place a phasing plan and obviously getting the type of funding in place that's going to be required to execute it," he said.

And that points to another key question: Where will the money come from to pay for this vision?

It's a question not just for the commuter rail, but for the entire transportation system. The commuter rail plan comes amid a broader push for the state to generate more money to pay for upgrades for transportation.

Over the last few months there's been a growing chorus of voices — from businesses, advocates and mayors — calling for action.

One idea is to add more tolls.

"Within the metropolitan region, we have some people paying tolls and we have other people not paying tolls," said Rick Dimino, the president of the business group A Better City.

Dimino's group recently released a plan to raise $50 billion for transportation over the next 20 years. Half of that money would come from tolling more roads, Dimino said.

Another way to raise money for transportation is to ask voters through regional ballot initiatives. Marc Draisen, of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said this would allow residents to approve local tax measures to fund their own transportation projects.

"Regional ballot initiatives are the way that America builds transit," Draisen said. "If you go to Los Angeles, if you go to Seattle, if you go to Denver, if you go to Houston, these are places where local and regional voters have said, we really need this project. And in those cases, local and regional voters have decided to contribute to the development and improvement of their transit system."

Draisen isn't just thinking locally. He said Massachusetts should also look to the federal government.

"The state hasn't really clearly indicated what will the next three or four or five big projects be in the transit arena. That's not rail alone. And I think it's very important to get us into the position where we can be competitive for federal funds," Draisen said.

There's another revenue option, but it's controversial: increasing the state's gas tax. This idea has been consistently unpopular among voters, according to polling.

Proponents point out that the last gas tax increase was just 3 cents. And that was six years ago.

"The crisis is on everyone's doorstep," said Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee, who is part of a coalition calling for a 15 cent hike to the gas tax. McGee estimates that would generate $450 million a year in revenue, which would help address some of the region's transportation problems.

"It doesn't get us all where we need to be, but it's a step in the right direction," McGee said.

McGee, who formerly served as a state senator and chair of the Transportation Committee, said lawmakers failed to pass revenue measures when he was in the State House a decade ago.

"I think more and more, you have to feel the crisis as much as talk about it," he said. "And I just think the timing is right and we're at a tipping point."

Staci Rubin, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, agrees that lawmakers are feeling that tipping point.

"I think we have a really motivated legislature right now, who is looking to make a difference from a transportation funding perspective," Rubin said.

Lawmakers are considering several revenue-raising options, including a gas tax hike as well as an increase on Uber and Lyft fees. There's also the governor's $18 billion transportation bond bill.

Some of these measures may be fine for now, but in the long term, the state needs to move to a different system, where commuters pay a lot more to use the roads, said Christopher Zegras, a transportation and urban planning professor at MIT.

"Why don't we just move to a system where cars get charged and that charge goes up when you're driving it in places and at times when there is congestion?" Zegras said.

This approach is known as congestion pricing, and it already exists in many cities.

"We actually get the system that we pay for. We don't pay enough. And thus, our system is falling apart," Zegras said.

Many business groups, advocates and municipal leaders are pressing for a range of options to bring in new revenue for transportation.

Their hope is that lawmakers push past the usual political gridlock, so the rest of us can stop getting stuck in traffic.

This segment aired on November 21, 2019.


Headshot of Zeninjor Enwemeka

Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



More from WBUR

Listen Live