Describing Her Own Commute, Transpo Secretary Says “It Is A Mystery Every Single Day”
NOV. 15, 2023…..In her first public appearance as transportation secretary, Monica Tibbits-Nutt laid out her vision Wednesday for a unified transportation system that helps address some of Massachusetts’ biggest problems, previewed a “hard, hard discussion” about more state money for the MBTA, and shared the frustrations of her own commute into Boston.
Gov. Maura Healey removed the acting prefix and made Tibbits-Nutt her full-fledged transportation secretary Monday, putting the longtime transit pro fully in charge of trying to stabilize the MBTA, make inroads in the efforts to ease traffic congestion and get the transportation sector more involved in working toward state climate goals.
Speaking to the independent MBTA Advisory Board on Wednesday, the secretary said she views her role as working to unify the Department of Transportation, MBTA, regional transit authorities, and dozens of municipal airports along with the Logan, Worcester and Hanscom airports, into “one transportation system” that can be part of the solutions to pressing issues like congestion, housing affordability, and economic development.
“Housing, as I often say, is intrinsically linked with transportation and economic development. Being able to work with Secretary [Yvonne] Hao on economic development and Secretary [Edward] Augustus in housing, we are finally creating the triangle that I think has been missing for many, many decades here in Massachusetts,” Tibbits-Nutt said.
While the three secretaries are working together, Gov. Healey actually split up the former Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, creating a new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities and an Executive Office of Economic Developments.
Tibbits-Nutt added that transportation is predominantly centered around the Greater Boston region’s “inner core,” a part of the state that has extraordinarily expensive housing for those who can find it at all. That leads businesses and workers to move further and further away from the “inner core.”
“When you look at the Gateway Cities, when you look at central and western Massachusetts, north and south, there is a lot of housing being built. … And those are the places that are making that investment. They’re making investment in smaller businesses. The problem is we haven’t matched that investment in transportation,” the secretary said.
So instead, thousands of people get in their cars and try to drive into Boston each day. Most often, they are met with soul-crushing congestion because “because people have no choice but to drive,” Tibbits-Nutt said.
“Communities have to build more housing, we need more transit-oriented development around the transit stations that currently exist. If that density is not increased, we can’t help with the congestion. There’s nothing we can do to fix that,” she said.
MBTA General Manager Phil Eng’s “very, very aggressive, but I actually think achievable plan” to eliminate slow zones on the T’s subway and trolley service by the end of next year will help “100 percent” but won’t be enough to solve the congestion problem,” she said.
“People will have better options, but they’re going to be the people that live near those transit stations. And a lot of us can’t afford to live there,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “At DOT alone, the majority of us do not live in the inner core. So we are commuting in every single day on these congested roadways. So we’re experiencing this daily. We’re never going to be able to get the amount of people in any of the companies in the inner core if we cannot make their commutes easier.”
The secretary, who lives in central Massachusetts, talked about her own commute into Boston each day and how unpredictable it can be.
“Everywhere is bad. Everywhere is congested. I take Route 2 because I live in central Mass., it could be 45 minutes to two and a half hours. It is a mystery every single day … and I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning — you can’t leave much earlier unless you’re gonna leave in the middle of the night — and still facing that level of congestion. We have an extreme problem. This is a crisis.”
Part of addressing the crisis of transportation woes in Massachusetts means talking about providing more money to the MBTA, which brings in money from its own fares, gets a state appropriation, is assured a dedicated portion of the state’s sales tax revenue and collects contributions from cities and towns it serves.
A year ago, MBTA budget managers said the T could face an operating budget gap of as much as $139 million in fiscal year 2025, which will begin in July. By fiscal year 2028, they said, forecasts show the T could face a shortfall between $365 million and $543 million.
There are no easy answers to the T’s “fiscal cliff,” Tibbits-Nutt said Wednesday, but given that there is a new governor, new transportation secretary and new MBTA general manager, it could be “an opportunity to have a hard, hard discussion about hard choices about what is actually needed for the T to function.”
“The amount of money that is coming from the Legislature is not enough. And I don’t think that that’s even a controversial thing to say; that’s just simple math. It isn’t enough,” the secretary said. “So how do we get enough money for it? Because we cannot make that money contingent on, ‘Oh, well, the service needs to be this level of quality, you need this level of on-time performance to get that money.’ Because you can’t achieve that if you don’t have that money. You put the T in a difficult position where they can only lose, because there’s no winning that way.”
Tibbits-Nutt said that “we want to bring in additional sources of revenue,” but acknowledged doing so “is going to be a battle.” She said she thinks any effort related to the gas tax “would fail again” (voters in 2014 repealed the policy of indexing the gas tax to inflation) and mentioned the legal issues associated with expanding tolling beyond the Mass. Turnpike and Big Dig tunnels.
“Everything needs to be up for discussion. But I think we also need to be very open and honest with with the Legislature, but I think especially with the communities — here are the things legally you can do, here are things legally you can’t do — and make this an actual discussion,” she said.
MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane moderated the discussion with Tibbits-Nutt on Wednesday, and asked her to describe her vision for the unified transportation system she said she is striving for.
“For me, every place that you go, you should have at least three ways to get there. And they should be three ways that are cheap. And I mean, really, truly affordable,” she said. The secretary added, “I think it needs to be the same access independent of what neighborhood you live in. You should be able to pick jobs based on what you want, what amount of money you need to make, what field you want to be in, same with what school you want to go to, and not have transportation be the deciding factor for being able to make that decision. And beyond that, you should be able to get to all the services that you need to have an actual quality of life — hospital, getting to clinics, being able to get your kid to daycare, get your parents to a senior center — you should be able to do all of those things with more than one transportation option. No one should be forced to own a car, no one.”