MassDOT launches 6-month study of area's worst traffic -- and ways to help ease it

Nov. 26, 2018
State transportation officials have launched a new study to pinpoint the Boston area's worst traffic and figure out how to unjam it -- with city and business leaders calling it an urgent priority.

Nov. 24--State transportation officials have launched a new study to pinpoint the Boston area's worst traffic and figure out how to unjam it -- with city and business leaders calling it an urgent priority that has to be addressed before it drives companies and residents away.

"For us as a chamber, it's probably our No. 1 policy priority," said Carolyn Ryan, senior vice president of policy and research for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. "People are not going to enjoy living in Boston if it keeps being like this."

The Department of Transportation has launched a statewide analysis that will take place over the next six months to answer the questions of when, where and why traffic backups happen, and what the state can do about it.

MassDOT will look at problems including traffic volumes exceeding roads' capacities and slowdowns from crashes, weather and roadwork. The department then will try to come up with solutions to cut down on traffic jams caused by those issues. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said this is supposed to be a holistic study that tries to get at the root causes of traffic jams.

"We really are trying to look at nontraditional issues, like land-use issues," Pollack said. "Like, to what extent does homes being far from jobs contribute to congestion?"

Pollack this week asked the MassDOT board members to submit "plain-English" questions to staff to inform the study, which follows Gov. Charlie Baker's veto of a "congestion pricing" proposal -- toll hikes during rush hours intended to discourage quite so many cars from being on the road. Baker said the state needed to find other ways to ease traffic.

"There needs to be a sense of urgency," said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts. "We have the worst commutes in the entire country. The data is backing up what people are feeling, which is traffic is the worst it's ever been in Greater Boston."

A Chamber of Commerce report earlier this year estimated increased traffic locally costs $2.4 billion in lost productivity, and found workers are spending an average of 60 hours stuck in congested traffic each year.

"The macro level risk for us is that we start to stall out our economy," Ryan said. "If you can't handle more people, you can't handle more jobs, you can't handle more growth."

Others say areas that are harder to access, including Boston's Seaport District, could start to see companies leaving as employees face more difficulties getting to work.

"Businesses are going to continue to expand where they have access to labor. When labor starts to be a problem, they have to look elsewhere. That's looming," said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group. "Now people are putting up with a lot of congestion and traffic, but at some point that's going to shift."

The state's study will also consider nonvehicle modes of transport such as the MBTA, said MassDOT planning director David Mohler. He said MassDOT will also try to predict what will cause problems over the next couple of decades, though the primary purpose of the study is to address today's issues.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, pushing for more public transport, said, "It's a problem for every major city in America. It's a very complicated issue. ... We're trying working with public transportation systems, working on dedicated bike lanes, working on ... better pedestrian connections. As the city grows and more people come in and live here and more jobs are created, obviously it brings more traffic. And we've just got to continue to try to find alternative means of transportation, and public transportation's the best."

"Traffic is among the top three concerns I hear across the city," said City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George. "We have to take a real look at it and make some significant changes, both to the roadways to improve traffic flow and our transit system. We have to make sure that we have safe pedestrian access and bicycle infrastructure across the city."

City Councilor Ed Flynn said, "When you're doing economic development in a certain neighborhood, there must be a comprehensive traffic plan. ... If there's another 5,000 residents moving into a development, what impact will that have on traffic throughout the immediate area?"

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