As the 2021 – 2022 legislative session draws to a close in Massachusetts, many residents are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by record high gas prices and inflation that too often force them to choose between filling up at the pump and filling their refrigerators. Overwhelmed by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left too many families behind on rent payments and facing eviction. Overwhelmed by the climate crisis, which has exacerbated extreme heat and flooding and threatens the future of our communities.
Inflation, economic instability, and the climate crisis affect all areas of the Commonwealth and require statewide solutions. One of the most effective solutions to address all three of these issues is one often missing from policymaker proposals: meaningful and equitable investments in public transportation.
The state’s 15 Regional Transit Authorities and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority are the backbone of our public transportation system. Every day, high-capacity vehicles like buses and trains help get millions of people to work, school, childcare, grocery stores and vaccine appointments, while causing less environmental harm (particularly as we electrify fleets) and saving residents on fuel. As a result, access to these services has a very real impact on public health.
Too often, however, state funding for transportation prioritizes cars and highways over mass transit. This approach to funding transportation comes at a high cost to the people of Massachusetts, especially older adults, people with disabilities and working people, including essential workers.
Lack of investment in public transportation isn’t just hurting our economy, it’s also exacerbating climate change. Transportation emissions create more greenhouse gasses in Massachusetts than any other sector, including electricity generation. In order to dramatically cut emissions and meet our climate goals, we need to electrify public bus fleets and make mass transit more reliable and convenient, so drivers get out of their cars and onto the bus. With gas prices at record highs, there is a real opportunity to make public transportation the preferred option for more people than ever before.
Unfortunately, we are far from achieving this vision. MBTA service has become less reliable as the agency suffers from a backlog of deferred maintenance and critical staff shortages. Meanwhile, residents of RTA communities are even more underserved. Operating in communities from Western Massachusetts to the Merrimack Valley, RTAs serve 55% of Massachusetts residents, yet receive less than 7% of state transit operational dollars.
The RTA Advancement Bill (S.2277), would stabilize funding for RTAs and begin to pave the way for better service through mechanisms like annual funding increases, funding for bus electrification and regular reporting on the needs of RTA communities. Filed this session by Senator Harriette Chandler and Representative Natalie Blais, the bill was favorably reported out of the Joint Committee on Transportation and currently sits before Senate Ways and Means.
The overlapping crises of inflation and climate change currently threatening the health of our communities must be met with smart and equitable transit policy. The legislature should seize this opportunity to take an important step forward by passing S.2277, An Act to Improve and Expand Regional Transit Accessibility in the Commonwealth.
Carlene Pavlos is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association