Transit Re-Considered – It is time to address real transportation needs

  • Post category:Green Line

The premise of David Luberoff’s anti-transit arguments about current and past Greater Boston transit commitments are grounded on wide ranging, but selective data. It is important to point out that the state was fully aware before completing I-93 in the early 1970s, that Somerville’s air quality and noise levels did not meet Federal standards at the time, and would worsen in the future with increased I-93 traffic. Now more than 300,000 vehicles per day travel through Somerville on I-93, arterial highways and local roads.
Clearly Luberoff’s recommendation to reduce vehicle emissions is important if we are to improve air quality in greater Boston, but such efforts fall far short of solving the regions’ air quality issues and transportation needs. Although much has been written about the triumph of community over highway interests in the 1970’s and the redirection of federal highway funding toward transit, Luberoff completely ignores the economic, quality of life and air quality benefits that have accrued within the corridors that benefited from this investment in public transportation.

In his argument Luberoff equates all rail projects as having the same benefit, as though they were being viewed from 50,000 feet over eastern Massachusetts. Thus, he would have us believe that if there are no air quality benefits from the Old Colony diesel commuter rail project, then extending the electrified Green Line in Somerville will produce no environmental benefits. Had he conducted a more fine-grained analysis recognizing the differences between transit corridors in densely populated urban and less dense suburban corridors in eastern Massachusetts, a very different picture about benefits resulting from improving public transit would emerge. Different population densities and commercial activity levels require very different transportation solutions. Overlooked in the analysis is the huge success of the Red Line extension for Cambridge and Davis Square on the western border of Somerville.
Yet a deeper comparison of health data for Cambridge and Somerville provides a compelling additional argument. Today Cambridge enjoys lower than (state) average deaths due to lung cancer and heart attacks. The air quality benefits in Cambridge are directly related to extensive use of the Red Line, the absence of highways in the city, restrictions on parking and truck traffic, and a focus on transit-adjacent development.
On the other hand, each day Somerville residents breathe the emissions from more than 300,000 vehicles on I-93, McGrath Highway and other commuter roads that cut through the city. We also breathe the fumes from 200 diesel powered commuter and freight rail trains that pass through without even stopping to serve Somerville residents. The vast Boston Engine Terminal where the MBTA repairs diesel trains and increased truck traffic due to restrictions in Cambridge and on the Tobin Bridge add to the local pollution levels. All these emissions contribute to Somerville having more excess lung cancer and heart attack deaths per square mile than any of Massachusetts’ other 350 cities and towns, after adjusting for both population density and age. The public health damages from unfair environmental burdens of regional transportation emissions imposed upon Somerville equal several hundred million dollars per year.
Before the Red Line extension was completed transportation planners grossly underestimated transit ridership for Davis Square. Today Somerville’s only subway stop attracts at least 5000 more riders than the initial MBTA estimate, without any park and ride facilities for commuters. This underestimate for a single Somerville station represents more real “new riders” than Luberoff’s total estimate for a new multi-station Green Line branch to Medford through the densest city in the Commonwealth. The popularity of the Davis Square Red Line station is fueled primarily by people walking and bicycling to the station. New Green Line stations would succeed similarly.
Luberoff has stated “there are very few corridors without rail that are dense enough to attract significant numbers of new transit riders.” This statement overlooks both the success of the Davis Square T stop and the widespread support for extending the Green Line through Somerville. Even state transportation officials have recognized this after over 400 residents attended a Green Line Hearing on the last night of the World Series in October, 2004. Months later, after twice rescheduling another hearing in Somerville due to snowstorms, more than 600 residents packed Somerville High School to demonstrate their strong and virtually unanimous support for the Green Line.
It is particularly disturbing that environmental justice concerns were not taken into consideration by Luberoff when pronouncing transit projects unworthy of funding. Somerville’s environmental justice characteristics deserve the full attention of regional transportation planners and decision makers. Somerville has had the most people per square mile in New England for over a century. As of 2000, the city had nearly 19,000 residents per square mile (first in Massachusetts) and nearly 7,000 non-English speaking residents per square mile (second only to Chelsea) as well as over 2,000 multi-family properties per square mile (first). The highways, and commuter rail networks that run through but do not serve our residents, demonstrate Somerville’s heavy burden to benefit ratio.
Further, Somerville more than meets density requirements for successful transit projects because the city’s density includes a transit dependent population. Many Somerville households do not own a car (27%). Despite the lack of rail-based transit in the city, 29% of Somerville’s workforce uses public transit to get to and from work (second to Boston’s 32%). Without direct access to rapid transit, Somerville residents who must transfer from buses to trains have long been burdened by having to pay double fares. But even if the financial transfer penalty are eliminated through revised fare structures, only the additional elimination of transfers can restore wasted travel time to people’s lives and encourage additional new riders to get out of their cars.
There is not enough space to adequately address the assertion that “there is no data to suggest that more rail service will mean better air quality” but it must be briefly countered. Just as reducing vehicle emissions will benefit air quality, so will extending the Green Line. The MBTA’s own recent analysis in the “Beyond Lechmere Northwest Corridor Study” revealed that one of the proposed alternatives would attract over 13,000 new riders from autos to the Green Line.
Luberoff focuses his air quality remarks on ozone precursors and carbon monoxide. To be sure these are both serious issues. Too much carbon monoxide in a garage or a building interior can kill people. Massachusetts is the largest state in the US, all of whose area has been in violation of the ozone standards since the Clean Air Act of 1970. This is almost certainly related to the Commonwealth’s leading asthma incidence rates – annually our asthma statistics are often 30% higher than both the US and California averages. Luberoff mentions lower ozone trends recorded in Massachusetts for the 1990s and the good numbers from 2003. He forgot to mention however that the warm summers of 2001 and 2002 resulted in more ozone violations than in any of the prior dozen years. [Oops.]
Similarly, Luberoff focuses his suggested air quality fixes on removing “high emitter” cars from the traffic pool. This is an excellent idea, if executed carefully, but it should not be paid for with transit funds. It should simply be part of the road vehicle inspection and maintenance program. With regard to his calculation of comparative benefit from this tactic there are some problems. First, the air quality models run by government agencies tend to vastly underestimate the number of “smokers.” These are largely vehicles whose emission control systems have broken down – the variations within model years far exceed those between years. The first several thousand vehicles taken out of the traffic stream – through retirement or repair – would have no effect on modeled air quality because they aren’t currently captured anyway. Second, voluntary high emitter reduction programs tend to attract vehicles from outside the region and also tend to attract those which are driven the least miles per year. Third, the high emitters in one air quality category are often not the high emitters in another – for example, there is only a 25% overlap between CO and VOC high emitters and virtually none with NOx. Fourth, there is a new generation of new high emitters every six to twelve months, and any comparison with a transit project with a 50-year life must adjust calculations accordingly. In short, it looks like Luberoff’s quick assessment of the benefits of high emitter reduction versus clean light rail might be off by two orders of magnitude or so. [Oops again.]
Most seriously, Luberoff ignores air toxics and particulate matter from mobile sources, categories also covered by the Clean Air Act of 1970, as amended through 1990. With regard to cancer-causing air toxics, largely as a result of mobile emissions EPA and Massachusetts estimate that our urban counties are one to two orders of magnitude in excess of established safe standards. Considered separately, particulates are an even bigger human health issue.
Between 1993 (Dockery, Pope et al.) and 2002 (Pope, Krewski et al.) environmental health research has shown a linear relationship between fine particulate matter – soot too small to see – and excess regional lung cancer and heart attack deaths. Based upon this research, EPA revised its air quality standards in 1997 and will do so again later this year. EPA’s current health effects document (Apt Associates, 2005) suggests that Middlesex, Suffolk and Norfolk counties have roughly 600 excess regional deaths per year from particulates, 470 from lung cancer and other cardiopulmonary afflictions. More recent investigations have demonstrated how unequal environmental benefits and burdens also result in very steep local disparities between communities within a region.
Studies conducted by the most credible epidemiologists in Europe and Southern California have shown that proximity to sources of mobile particulate matter is directly related to the intensity of the health effects (Hoek, Brunekreef et al., 2002; McConnell et al., 2002; Gauderman et al., 2004; presentation to the California Air Resources Board by Jerrett, Krewski, Pope et al., 2005). Asthma, childhood lung development and premature mortality have all been shown to be strongly associated with proximity to mobile pollution sources.
But for some reason Luberoff has completely ignored the most compelling research on air pollution and health of the last 15 years – both in the US and across the globe. Does he really think that the 100,000,000 road vehicles and 60,000 diesel trains that cut through Somerville each year are doing no measurable harm here even though similar volumes have been shown to be doing grave harm in Southern California and Europe? A review of our public health records from 1996 through 2000 shows otherwise.
Luberoff warns that the cost of excessive subsidies for transit riders does not make sense. Yet he ignores the high cost of highway subsidies even though he knows better than anyone that the daily subsidy for each car on I-93 through the Big Dig area is approximately $20 per trip. That is far more than the revised cost per rider estimates for extending the Green Line through Somerville. He cites reliable sources to back up the fact that vehicular congestion expands to fill any road capacity additions. Many would agree with him that we certainly cannot pave our way out of our congestion and air quality problems. Our state highways carried under 25 million vehicle miles per day in 1970 but will carry over 75 million vehicle miles per day in 2010.
It is time we reconsider transit – more creatively and much more seriously. Even as our road, bridge and transit infrastructure has crumbled in the shadow of the Big Dig’s financial demands, our local brainpower has contributed to global high tech and biotech revolutions. You can stand on one spot of sidewalk in East Cambridge and see Draper Labs (whose employees figured out how to get our astronauts back from a failed moon mission when NASA computers could not), the Whitehead Institute (whose Human Genome Project decoded DNA), the Harvard Smithsonian (whose staff run the Chandra telescope and have helped map 90% of the known universe), and new buildings underway that will house the Broad Institute (which will push applied genomics ahead for human health benefit) and the McGovern Institute (the world’s largest brain research facility). We live in one of the wealthiest regions of the wealthiest nation on Earth. Surely we can fundamentally improve our transportation system to more fully serve economic opportunity, environmental protection and social equity. If all we can do is keep a few commuter buses on the road and take a few “smokers” off of it for a few months, we may as well turn off the lights and close up shop. We can do a lot better.
Ellin Reisner and Wig Zamore, STEP