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Harvard Traffic Study Finds Massachusetts Spends Billions in Hidden Costs of Driving

Dec 30, 2019 11:58PM
SALEM, Mass. The Boston Globe reported on a new study from the Harvard Kennedy School that explored the hidden costs Massachusetts families pay for the state’s roads. Here is an excerpt from the article:
 
...the real price Massachusetts pays for its vehicle economy is much, much higher. Now, thanks to an ambitious research project by a team of graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School, we have an idea of just how high: $64.1 billion a year.
 
That astronomical estimate includes all the things we don’t often think about when we get into our cars — costs that extend far beyond what we pay at the dealership or the pump. And the biggest slice of that giant pie gets paid for before anybody actually signs a lease or gets behind the wheel. So many of the expenses associated with cars and roads are borne by the public that the average family in Massachusetts is on the hook for about $14,000 a year, whether they own a car or not, the study found.
 
For those who do own vehicles, the average annual costs nearly double.
 
‘We never talk about the costs of driving,’ said Rep. Seth Moulton, who suggested the study to Linda Bilmes, the Kennedy School public policy professor who oversaw the work. ‘We always talk about subsidies that go to railway passengers, but never the subsidies that go to drivers. ... We are subsidizing the least efficient way to get around.’”
 
Read the full article by The Boston Globe’s Nestor Ramos here.
 
The full study is available from the Harvard Kennedy School here.
 
The study’s publication comes a month after Moulton previewed the findings and outlined a vision for the state’s transportation future that moves beyond cars and roads.
 
Below is a full transcript of Moulton’s address, which he gave to the New England Council. The speech is a starting point for policy Moulton will work on in the New Year.
 
Remarks to the New England Council From Representative Seth Moulton
November 12, 2019
The Hampshire House
Boston, Massachusetts 
 
Thank you all for the invitation to speak with you today.
 
When I leave here, I will head to Washington, where everyone will focus on impeachment and the looming threat of a government shutdown. I’m frankly glad my daughter can’t understand what’s going on.
 
And while I could spend all my time talking about that today, I think history will look back on this moment and judge us not just on whether Congress impeached President Trump, as I believe it must...
 
I believe history will judge us in this moment by whether we understood and confronted the economic challenges that fueled his rise.
 
This moment is bigger than Donald Trump. Our country has a number of insecurities, from racial issues to the pervasive and real fear of gun violence, but many believe that his presidency is a reaction to basic economic insecurity more than anything else. So many feel it, and not just the poor. Trump is a symptom, not a cause.
 
He preys upon our insecurity. The xenophobic, racist targeting of immigrants, his retreat from the world stage on everything from the Paris Accord, to the Iran Deal, to Syria, to trade...the list is long.
 
He succeeds because these ideas harness the worst parts of the powerful forces of economic disruption and change. Whether we like it or not, these forces are pushing our nation and our world forward into a new economic era fueled by automation, digitization, and global competition.

Americans are nervous. Many believe we are no longer great. That we can’t keep up. That our best days are behind us.
 
I disagree. But meeting these challenges requires real work, and real change.
 
Today, I want to present some ideas about how we can meet this moment and set the next generation of Americans up for economic success—without dividing the country.
 
First, think about how previous generations reacted to disruption and innovation to build our country into the greatest on Earth.
 
As many of you know, I have the privilege of representing Newburyport. And one of Newburyport’s most famous residents, Francis Cabot Lowell, found himself confronting a moment in 1810 just like the one we face today.
 
Lowell toured a British textile mill. He saw new machines that let the British out-compete the Americans in getting textiles to market.
 
Realizing that the War of 1812 was coming, and that Great Britain wouldn’t export that technology to Massachusetts, Lowell memorized the designs he saw on his tour and built his own mills in America.
 
In the city that today bears his name, Lowell ironically did what China now does to us every minute through the internet.
 
And just as China’s forgery has fueled its rise, so did Lowell’s in 1810.
 
Lowell met the moment—the technology in his mills set into motion an era of American economic growth that transformed the country. But it also opened deep divisions in America—the demand for cotton skyrocketed. It fueled the Civil War.
 
So, we need to learn from that, too—not only do we need to out-compete and out-innovate our adversaries and rivals, we will only win this competition if we are able to bring the country together in the process.
 
To succeed we must prepare a new generation of workers for what’s coming. We must reimagine our communities and commutes so people can get to where the jobs will be. And if we get it right, we will reunite our nation so it is strong enough to tackle a new generation of challenges.
 
When Francis Cabot Lowell built his mills, he set into motion a great migration of workers from rural America to Massachusetts. He built new types of housing and his company offered workers a new type of education that was skills-based.
 
Most of the people who moved here were women, and they jumped at the chance to leave their small towns, and their parents’ confining views, to earn their own living. That changed how families looked, when people got married, even how they found partners. It started a very slow march towards equality that is still unfinished today.
 
The young people of our era are flocking to cities like Boston, Austin, and San Francisco. That’s where the post-recession opportunities are growing most.
 
Just like before, we need to house them, which I’ll get to in a second. We also need to rethink how we’re training young people and preparing them for work.
 
To me, that means doubling down on vocational education, making college more affordable, and establishing a skills guarantee so everyone graduates with real job skills, not just a loan book.
 
I proposed several ideas on this when I was running for president, some of which have been taken up by other candidates, and I’m going to keep using my seat in Congress to build them out.
 
The ways we work have changed, too. And to meet this moment, we must change how we compensate workers and restore the value of hard work.
 
The women who worked in Lowell made $3.00, today’s equivalent of about $20.00, a week.
 
And while jobs pay more fairly today, women are still not paid equally. That’s a problem we can fix. So too is the fact that working class Americans making minimum wage haven’t seen a raise in a decade.
 
Wages throughout the economy are stagnant. Child care is way too expensive. Moms and Dads don’t have the $20,913 per year the Economic Policy Institute estimates it costs to pay for childcare in this city. It costs less to go to UMass.
 
There are many other things we can focus on to make work pay, like portable benefits that travel with workers through their careers, parental leave, so our infant mortality rate is no longer the worst in the developed world, and of course, the cost of health care.
 
It’s no coincidence that Mass General was founded in 1810. The people who moved here for work in Lowell demanded good health care, and workers today deserve it too.
 
But, there’s one thing that’s holding back our economy in Massachusetts more than anything else: traffic.
 
We are the nation’s leader in bad traffic. And if we want to lead the next generation economy—if we are going to out-compete cities in America for new jobs, and if America is going to out-compete our adversaries, we must reimagine our communities and commutes.
 
Commutes and Communities 
Now most of you have heard me talk about some of this before, especially the North-South Rail Link, but today I want to rise above the technical details of that critical project and talk about the much larger vision: why modern transportation is essential to our economic success in Massachusetts, and how it can make our lives much better in the process.
 
This is all about connecting people to jobs and housing. And it matters now more than ever not just because Boston is growing—it’s been doing that for most of the city’s history—but because of how rapidly the new economic revolution is shifting where people live and work. It’s about growing our economy by making us more interconnected and by building the types of communities that are more economically successful.
 
And—and this is important—doing it not by fiat but how America has always innovated best: through the free market.
 
So let me paint the vision, and let me also directly address three myths about all this in the process.
 
So first, here’s the vision for Massachusetts:
If you live in Springfield, you can get to work in Boston in 30 minutes on a train that comes so often you don’t have to look up the schedule, and so reliably that you can schedule a meeting to start at 9:00 am and expect people will show up in time for the donuts.
 
If you live Salem, or Concord, or Needham, you can get to downtown Boston in 20 minutes, and get off at South Station, North Station, or a new Central Station where you can wait 5-10 minutes on the same platform for a train to anywhere else on the system or the Northeast Corridor.
 
You can live on the South Shore and commute to the North Shore in 40 minutes. I could get to Springfield from Salem in 55. The new nonstop to Worcester that takes an hour? That would be 15 minutes with high-speed rail to Western Massachusetts.
 
My wife and I could go to Portland for dinner and be home by 10 o’clock—we love Portland restaurants! And the tens of thousands who can’t afford housing in downtown Boston can be home from work in 30 minutes, to fast-growing but affordable cities like Lowell and Attleboro, shorter than many subway commutes take today.
 
Lynn has an oceanfront downtown, and it’s the same distance from downtown Boston by train as Brooklyn is from downtown Manhattan. But imagine if the L train only ran every hour.
 
The point is: this is faster than driving. And that’s part of the first myth we need to dispel: that commuter trains, or more accurately, regional rail trains, are slower and not as nice as driving. We think of the commuter rail as the poor alternative to driving when traffic is terrible: we must make it legitimately faster.
 
And the trains should be nice and inviting as they are in Europe. This is not pie in the sky: it is reality in much of the world. It’s reality among our global competition. I rode in a 1955 Chevy recently in Cuba; it’s cool, but cars have been upgraded since the 1950s to be more comfortable; Boston commuter trains have not. It’s not hard: modern trains exist, just not here!
 
Hedge fund managers in London don’t commute to work by train because they can’t afford Rolls Royces. Business executives in Germany don’t take trains because they don’t have Mercedes or the speed limit on the Autobahn is too low: traveling by train in these countries is faster and nicer than driving.
 
Now, the second myth I want to address is that electric vehicles or autonomous vehicles are going to make all the world’s trains obsolete.
 
This is simply not true. Electric cars are great—my wife and I own a Chevy Volt. But it doesn’t go any faster or create any less congestion than all the gasoline-powered vehicles. We’ll still have traffic jams; they’ll just be silent traffic jams.
 
Autonomous vehicles offer more hope, but even under the most optimistic projections, where everyone owns one (newsflash: not going to happen in America anytime soon), they will not increase capacity and certainly won’t increase speed on our roads enough to make a real difference. And city traffic will be even worse because they are so dangerous for pedestrians as recent studies have proven.
 
The third myth is that it’s simply too late or too expensive to build all this electrified regional rail infrastructure. Quite the opposite: it’s too late and too expensive to wait. The cities that are starting to out-compete Boston know that if you build modern transportation systems right, businesses and people will come.
 
Take Denver. Denver is the second most walkable metro area in the United States.  They have restaurants, shops, community spaces, commercial buildings, affordable housing—all within walking distance of reliable transportation options.
 
But it wasn’t always this way. The city of Denver built light rail and commuter rail systems from scratch, in just the last couple decades. They started in 1994 with brand new tracks. In contrast, the commuter line to my home Salem is basically unchanged since it was started in 1837. Denver was also intentional in promoting affordable housing units through strategic property acquisition. It’s only been a few years, but it’s already created vibrant neighborhoods, jobs, and transportation that’s accessible to everyone—not just those that can afford it.
 
And yes the commuter rail system is electrified.
 
In Seattle, leaders are transforming surplus land around new light rail stations into thriving communities that are connected to the larger, less developed areas around Seattle with reliable rail. Again—from scratch. Again—electrified. And Microsoft just privately funded a high-speed rail study to Vancouver.
 
Housing 
Perhaps the most important reason why all this matters is not transportation itself but the kind of housing it engenders. After all, we wouldn’t need transportation at all if we lived where we worked.
 
For a long time in America, we’ve only built highways, which amazingly, create sprawly, unsustainable communities with terrible traffic, and then after the fact, we come in and try to squeeze in various forms of transit and force certain types of development to ameliorate the situation. That’s totally backwards.
 
Mind you, we’re now just about the only country left that thinks you solve bad traffic by adding more lanes to highways; most countries are closing lanes down—or at the very least, paying to maintain what they already have, not building new ones.
 
In our new economy, you ought to be able to choose not to have a car. And you ought to be able to choose not to have all the negative effects driving has on our personal health, the environment’s health, our community’s health and even our politics.
 
Ever notice why there are so many fewer overweight people in New York? Because they walk to transit! For example, my team member in the back who worked on this speech with me lived in New York. He lost 15 pounds just by moving.
 
Every week I fly into Washington, you can see the rare American example of doing it right: clusters of tight, walkable communities (with great real estate returns) built around Metro stations that were built first. It’s transit-oriented development. But you don’t have to force it: build better transit, eliminate draconian zoning laws, and the market will deliver exactly what we need.
 
Governor Baker deserves credit here—he released a plan this year that addresses zoning holistically, and combats some of the racist origins in which zoning policy is rooted.
 
But better transit fundamentally has to come first, or nobody will be able to get from these lovely communities to where they want to work.
 
Finally, on housing, I want to emphasize that these wonderful, walkable communities that you see in leading cities around the world, including in parts of Boston, are at their best when they include a mix of people and housing. Again, hate to use the example, but like New York. It leads to more inclusive communities; it leads to more inclusive politics. In other words, they meet the demands of the new economy while bringing people together.
 
Luxury lanes aren’t going build us that future. They will worsen traffic and worsen inequality—literally the exact opposite of what we need to do. Does anyone honestly believe that what downtown Boston needs is a few more cars every day?
 
Cities around the world are closing down highway lanes, not building new ones. Take Paris. The city used to be known for grueling traffic jams and choking smog.
 
New investments in transit, particularly trams in the Paris suburbs, have made a huge difference. A study released earlier this year found that driving within Paris city limits has dropped about 45 percent since 1990, and the number of cyclists has increased tenfold over the same timeframe. Transit’s mode share has risen by 30 percent.
 
If we move forward with a plan to add luxury lanes, it will lock us into a car-based future and rob our state’s residents of the freedom they could have if reliable, regional rail came to their towns.
 
 
Conclusion 
So that’s the vision, and my case to you. But if you’re merely admirers or observers, let alone critics, this won’t work because to achieve this vision requires a bigger change in mindset than most leaders in the State seem to recognize.
 
How many of you took the commuter rail to Boston this morning? I didn’t either; I took my Volt. But I don’t blame you. We need faster and nicer than driving. But today, the experience of traveling by train isn’t even close. So we can’t just sit here and imagine hypothetical commuters: let’s be real about what it will take to get us to take the train, to want to take the train, to prefer to take the train into the city.
 
Let’s be truly honest about where we are today. We say we want people to take the train to work. It’s better for traffic, the environment, even our health. So let’s look at the experience:
 
Massachusetts opened an expanded and modernized station in Salem in 2015; it’s the busiest station on the system outside of Boston, and one of the newest. But just compare the experience of traveling by train and by plane: Massport is currently expanding and modernizing Terminal E at Logan Airport as well.
 
Are they building it without a roof? Are they building it without heating? Will they expect you to crunch through a half-inch layer of salt on the floor to get on the plane? That is the reality for rail passengers at the MBTA’s brand new station in Salem—and everywhere else on our rail system today. That is how we treat the citizens of Massachusetts who commute to work by train: we treat them like second-class citizens—frankly, like steerage.
 
So don’t let anyone up the street at the State House tell you that rail or transit is a priority. Today it is not. To say so is quite frankly insulting.
 
North Station is full of pigeons. Do you have to bring an umbrella to safely walk through Logan or even any parking garage downtown?
 
The paint on the ceiling of the newish Airport Blue Line Station is peeling off? Is that the case at the rental car facility across the street? 
 
Even at South Station, with Acela service, you can’t get out of a car on the street or wait for a train on the platform with a roof over your head, even though you could 100 years ago.
 
A budget is a reflection of your values, and we do not value the transportation system that we claim to want—that we encourage our fellow citizens to ride.
 
How many of you read the newspaper or work on your laptop at home under strings of blue-green fluorescent lights? The lighting in our commuter rail cars is more appropriate for growing plants indoors in winter than attracting commuters. Will one of you tell the MBTA that their market is commuters not plants?
 
Moscow doesn’t have chandeliers in the subway because they don’t have fluorescent light bulbs. The city is making a statement about what it values.
 
The fact of the matter is that, all rhetoric aside, in Massachusetts we value traveling by car and traveling by plane. We encourage everyone to use carbon, to live in places they can’t afford, and to live unhealthy lifestyles, stuck in traffic, every day. The Harvard Kennedy School is soon to release a report on just how regressive—and oppressive—these spending priorities are. In other words, what the real cost of driving is to the Commonwealth. The subsidies for the rich will blow your mind. Please stay tuned for that.
 
We, in Massachusetts, deserve better. And to be competitive, we need to deliver something much better. To incentivize and grow the businesses, the housing—the economy—that we need, we need to truly prioritize transforming our transportation system, yes, but fundamentally, our transportation experience.
 
And I am convinced that this is only going to happen with the advocacy and leadership of the people in this room, of Boston’s business community. This is not just a technology case, an environmental case, or a racial and social justice case I’m making to you this morning—though it is all of those things. It is a business case.
 
When Commonwealth business leaders came together to advocate for The Big Dig, they—some of you in the room—were pushing for a project of a scale and technical complexity no city had ever done before. It was painful, but it was worth it. This is so easy in comparison. We just need to pay attention to what other cities are doing all around the globe.
 
We need a little Francis Cabot Lowell back in Boston today.
 
I mentioned Mass General was founded in 1810. The hospital was built through a state charter that authorized the collection of private funds, and the private sector stepped up to the plate.
 
Donations ranged from a quarter to $20,000, the equivalent to a half million today. The hospital also said it received some unique private sector donations, most notably a 273-pound pig.
 
Of course, there are better, more recent examples, like the Allston-Brighton commuter station that New Balance helped fund and finance. The company’s work helped them build a new headquarters and the Bruins practice facility on the line to Worcester.
 
You are the leaders Boston needs. But we have to demand more—faster, nicer, better—than we ever have before. Our city’s economy requires it. Our city’s social fabric demands it. It is how we meet the demands of the new economy, and unite the Commonwealth in the process.
 
A foundational American principle is that we’re all in this together. Imagine if that were truly the case for how we travel around the region—we would all be invested in making it better; we would all be invested in each other.
 
In the 19th century, Massachusetts was a model for the country on innovation, with Lowell’s mills; we led on health care, with Mass General; we led on equality, with jobs for women; and with the nation’s first subway, we led on transportation.
 
In the 21st century, we’ve lead on innovation in biotech (though Beijing is catching up); we’ve led on health care in America (though we only rank 37th in the world); we’ve led on equality (despite Trump’s efforts to undo it). Let us once again be a model for the country on transportation as well.
 
If we build it, they will come. We will bring the Commonwealth together in the process. And Boston will be not just a City Upon a Hill, but a City Upon a Hill that’s easy to get to, with a lot of fast trains underneath.
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