Massachusetts Commuters at the Breaking Point

AP Photo/Steven Senne

More than 60 percent of Boston’s subway, commuter rail, and bus riders say delays and construction on public infrastructure have caused them to be late for work.

For Massachusetts commuters, a nor’easter of fury is spinning its way across the smog-choked highways and lumbering rail lines. Invectives are hurled, Rs are dropped, and state leaders are blamed, especially on subway platforms in the Greater Boston area that are overflowing with people forced to deal with spotty service from trains that break down virtually all the time.

A new statewide study of registered voters conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, a Boston-based public opinion research company, confirms what most Bay State politicians, transportation analysts, and municipal planners already know: A tremendous anger is eating away at commuters which may force some of them right out of their areas. Yet the state’s problems are hardly unique. As housing prices soar in major metropolitan areas across the country, commuters are increasingly exposed to long and unsustainable travel times with a growing sense of dread.

There are special circles of hell in mass transit–dependent cities like Boston, New York, and Washington that have yet to benefit from significant upgrades in the existing transportation infrastructure. Add in an influx of new workers streaming into a technology hub like Boston, and residents both new and old are pushed to their limits by hour-long (or more) commutes and shoddy transportation service. It’s a phenomenon pulling the state down: Massachusetts may rank number one in education, according to 2018 U.S. News and World Report “Best States” rankings, but it comes in at number 45 for infrastructure.

More than 70 percent of full-time Bay State workers polled who commute by train, bus, or car said they became stressed, angry, and frustrated by their commutes, while a similar number reported having to leave earlier or later than usual to get to work on time. Moreover, 30 percent of those polled said they were considering moving to improve their commutes, and nearly a quarter said they were considering moving out of the area altogether.

The aggravation increases when commuters rely solely on public transportation. Many longtime Boston-area commuters have seen the responsibility for the dysfunctional Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston’s mass-transit system, ping-pong from one governor to the next with little improvement. Fares, of course, continue to go up despite widespread public opposition.

More than 60 percent of Boston’s subway, commuter rail, and bus riders say delays and construction on public infrastructure have caused them to be late for work. Within the city limits, more than half of those polled say getting around is probably only going to get worse, despite the promise of solutions from city officials on the horizon.

There’s firm support for devoting more public dollars to the system: A healthy majority of respondents (80 percent) supported new money for fixing the aging transit system. Off-peak toll discounts; a transportation climate initiative; and most resoundingly, the implementation of a comprehensive regional rail system also had broad appeal.

The MassINC poll comes on the heels of Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement that a long-delayed South Coast Rail line that would connect the former manufacturing cities of Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton to downtown Boston has secured its U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits and $1 billion in state bond funding.

New regional rail lines have long been proposed as a panacea for these old southeastern Massachusetts mill towns and as a remedy for long highway commutes, but until now funding has been slow to materialize. Transportation advocates say the expansion will revitalize these economically stagnant exurbs and create new housing stock to accommodate Boston-area workers.

For Tracy Corley, MassINC’s transit-oriented development fellow, the combination of troubling commute times and skyrocketing housing prices means the state needs a multi-pronged approach to solve the problem. “This is not a single-issue fix,” she says. “But the solutions are right here in front of us, from increasing commuter rail efficiency and reliability to regional investment incentives for housing and development in cities surrounding the metro area.” However, building new lines isn’t enough. “We also need to make sure people feel confident using commuter rail; knowing it’s going to run on time, and all the time,” Corley says.

People in Massachusetts want repairs made, not just talked about, as well as improved regional rail connections—and they are on board with proposals like Governor Baker’s climate-change initiative, which seeks to raise funds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by taxing the state’s gasoline distributors. Regional ballot initiatives establishing transportation taxes also garnered support, but such measures are currently not allowed and would require legislative approval.

If Boston and other infrastructure-stressed cities want to keep workers from packing their bags for a one-way commute out of town, public officials need to prioritize mass-transportation improvements—and the revenue-raising measures that can make them happen—over jacking up fares.

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