Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP)

June 29, 2009

Rep. Denise Provost on the Transportation Reform Act

The following letter was written in response to Gov. Deval Patrick signing the Transportation Reform Act.

Now that the Governor has signed the state's new Transportation Reform Act into law, it's time to report on the Act. This comprehensive Transportation Act was passed by the Massachusetts legislature on June 18, and signed Governor Patrick on June 26; most of its provisions become effective on November 1, 2009. So far, the Transportation Act's reorganizational aspects have drawn all the attention. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is abolished, and all of the state's other transportation agencies except the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) are placed under the authority of a new Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). MassDOT will be directed by a five member board, to be appointed by the Governor.

The merits of the governance structure created by the Transportation Act are debatable; my focus instead will be on the Act's strong environmental and public health provisions. In its promotion of walking and bicycling, its introduction of “health assessments” to evaluate transportation projects, and in its measures to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Transportation Act can transform the way that our transportation system. These features of transportation reform have had virtually no public notice, yet they are the most forward-looking elements in the whole plan, pointing the way to a cleaner, greener transportation future.

The first important change that this Act makes is to unify all planning, for all the state's transportation modes, into one office of transportation planning. The new transportation planning office includes the MBTA, the regional transit authorities (RTAs) and the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) (lines 730-733). The new office is charged with preparing a “comprehensive and coordinated intermodal transportation plan for the commonwealth” (lines 723-724) that includes passenger rail and other public transit, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and water transportation (lines 726-728).

The planning office's transportation programs are charged with being “sustainable,” expanding travel options and mobility, reducing congestion, conserving fuel, and improving air quality (lines 748-750). Moreover, these plans and programs must “prioritize alternative modes, including rail, bus, boat, rapid… transit… bicycling and walking.” (emphasis added; lines 748-752) The new planning office will be “responsible for bicycle and pedestrian planning… and the management of transportation programs promoting congestion mitigation and air quality improvements…” (lines 754-757).

The planning office, in coordination with the executive office of energy and environmental affairs (EOEEA), must develop “market-based compliance mechanisms” for transportation generated green house gases (lines 760-767). Consistent with an amendment I successfully made to the House version of the transportation bill, it is now mandated that “equitable bicycle and pedestrian access” be designed into “all transportation facilities,” including both new projects and renovations (lines 770-773). Additionally, transportation projects “shall… ensure safe and contiguous routes for all users, including individuals of all ages and abilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles and riders, and motorists” (emphasis added, lines 773-779).

The new planning focus on promoting alternative, sustainable transportation is elaborated by the establishment of a “healthy transportation compact.” This ambitious, cross-silo initiative charges the agency heads for transportation, health and human services, energy and environmental affairs, mass transit, and public health to “work cooperatively,” to “achieve positive health outcomes through coordination of land use, transportation and public health policy” (lines 1263-1270). The goals of this cooperative undertaking are reasonably specific: improving access to “healthy transportation alternatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” increasing bicycle and pedestrian travel, through means such as “complete street” design, and providing better “services to persons with mobility limitations” (line 1271-1289).

The Health Transportation Compact contains initiatives which are new for Massachusetts, and fairly cutting-edge nationally. Specifically, the Compact is required to “institute a health impact assessment for use by planners, transportation administrators, public health administrators, and developers” and also to “implement the use of health impact assessments to determine the effect of transportation projects on public health and vulnerable populations (lines 1289-1300). This latter provision was one that I was able to strengthen by successful amendment of the House bill.

Finally, the new Transportation Act requires the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) to study the health effects of exposure to fine and ultrafine particulate air pollution upon populations located close to the sources of such pollution (lines 3480-3495). If this project sounds familiar, it is because its substance is that of a bill I filed in the last session, H.2227, which was engrossed in the House, but died in the Senate. Through my successful amendment in the House, the scope of the study has been expanded beyond roadway exposure to include Logan Airport and the Port of Boston. As in my original bill, DPH is required to report its findings back to the legislature, along with any legislation it suggests appropriate.

In response to the Senate cry of “reform before revenue” – later echoed by the administration – the Transportation Act contains no new revenue. It does promise some savings, but these are fairly minor in scale, and only to be realized over time. Raising the revenue to fund a visionary transportation system that promotes health and preserves land, air quality, and climate integrity is the next challenge.

Representative Denise Provost