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Voices: Considered Opinion

Dug In

BY: David Luberoff
Issue: Spring 2005
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Dug In

It's time to reconsider Big Dig-related transit projects

By David Luberoff
Spring 2005

Read responses to this article.

More than 35 years ago, on February 11, 1970, Gov. Frank Sargent gave an extraordinary speech. In a 10-minute televised address explaining how he would deal with the bitter controversies surrounding several highways that the state was planning to build inside of Route 128, Sargent said this: “Four years ago, I was the commissioner of the Department of Public Works —our road building agency. Then, nearly everyone was sure highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come. We were wrong.”

Sargent went on to say that he was launching a full-scale review of the region’s highway and transit plans. That review, conducted under the supervision of Alan Altshuler, an MIT political scientist whom Sargent later appointed as the state’s first secretary of transportation, subsequently led Sargent to cancel virtually all planned highways inside of Route 128 and to launch a massive program to rebuild and expand the region’s rail transit system. In many ways, the Commonwealth is still carrying out the transportation agenda that Sargent launched that night.

There is no data to suggest that more rail service will mean better air quality.

There is another years-old commitment propelling the state’s transportation projects: the Big Dig. The Central Artery/Tunnel project in downtown Boston is not only a $14.6 billion highway project in downtown Boston, it also dictated (via its environmental permits) legally binding commitments to build a host of public transit projects billed as necessary to meeting environmental goals.

Unfortunately, the assumptions driving today’s transit projects are as wrong as the assumptions that drove yesterday’s highway projects. Specifically, there is no data to suggest that 14 rail projects—including three that are the subject of a lawsuit filed in January by the Conservation Law Foundation and others—are needed to prevent worsening air quality and congestion in the region, as the Big Dig-related agreements insist. What we could use now is someone of Frank Sargent’s character, someone who has the courage to say, “We were wrong.”

BIG DIG TRADE-OFFS

Under state and federal laws, the Big Dig could not proceed until state officials analyzed the project’s environmental impacts, and state law required that those impacts be mitigated. The final environmental analysis, issued in November 1990, predicted that if the project were built there would be very small reductions in emission of the two pollutants that combine in sunlight to form smog: volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

Transit advocates and environmentalists, most notably the Conservation Law Foundation—which was then headed by Doug Foy, now secretary of the state’s Office of Commonwealth Development—claimed that the anticipated pollution reductions were not due to the Big Dig at all but were attributable to several transit projects that would also be open by 2010, and which were included in the Big Dig environmental-impact modeling. If these transit projects accounted for the environmental gains cited in defense of the Big Dig, Foy and others contended, the state should make a legally binding commitment to build them along with the Central Artery/Tunnel project.

Fred Salvucci, then the state’s secretary of transportation, initially refused to sign such an agreement because he felt the Big Dig was an environmentally beneficial project by itself, largely because it would replace an ugly elevated highway with an underground road topped by appropriately scaled parks and buildings. By December 1990, however, Salvucci was ready to strike a deal, in part because he was concerned that political or legal challenges might delay or even stop the project, and in part because he wanted to make it hard for incoming Gov. William Weld, who had campaigned as a tax cutter, to slash transit spending. So Salvucci and Foy signed a pact committing the state to construction of all 14 transit projects named in the Big Dig’s environmental documents. In return, CLF pledged not to challenge the project in court, and even to defend the Big Dig against other lawsuits challenging the project’s environmental approvals. John DeVillars, then the state’s secretary of environmental affairs, made the agreement part of his official approval of the Big Dig’s environmental impact report, a ruling he issued the day before Weld took office.

“It is critical that these mitigation measures be implemented,” DeVillars wrote in his ruling. “They are absolutely necessary to achieve greater air quality improvements in metropolitan Boston.” In a 1992 settlement to a court suit filed by CLF asserting that the Weld administration was reneging on these commitments, the Weld administration agreed to make them part of the state’s official plan for complying with the federal Clean Air Act.

Since that time, many of the projects named in the Big Dig agreement have been built—most notably restoring service on two of the three branches of the South Shore’s Old Colony rail line; extending the Framingham commuter rail line to Worcester; and extending the Ipswich commuter rail line to Newburyport. But because the state hasn’t met the agreement’s timetables for completing the projects, CLF has been in and out of court, and, in the process, obtained renewed commitments from the state to build these and other transit projects.

In January, CLF and others filed suit once again, demanding that the state move forward on three projects they claimed the state had neglected: extending the Green Line from Lechmere to West Medford, connecting the Red and Blue lines at Charles Street, and restoring trolley service on the Arborway Line. At the press conference announcing the suit, CLF president Philip Warburg contended these projects are needed to “help make up for the air pollution generated by the cars and trucks using the ‘Big Dig’ road system.” A few weeks later, Salvucci echoed these views, telling Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, “We always knew that [the Big Dig] would create a very brief improvement and things would recongest if we did not improve public transportation.”

Trouble is, the Big Dig’s environmental documents actually tell a somewhat different story. To begin with, they clearly state (albeit in some very obscure places) that the transportation and air quality analyses assumed construction of only six planned transit projects, not the 14 required in the CLF agreement. (The six projects were the Old Colony and Newburyport commuter rail lines; the Red Line/Blue Line connector; improvements at South and North Station; and restoring Green Line service on the Arborway Line.) The eight other projects specified in the CLF agreement—including the Green Line extension to Medford, the Worcester commuter rail extension, and the Silver Line bus service to the South Boston waterfront—were not part of the modeling for environmental impact. Rather, they are mentioned elsewhere in the documents as projects that the MBTA was planning to carry out in coming years.

Unfortunately, the Big Dig’s environmental document does not detail how the six transit projects would produce the modest air quality benefits projected for the Big Dig. But it’s safe to assume that, for the transit projects to reduce highway congestion and, as a result, auto emissions, they would have to attract significant numbers of new transit riders, meaning people who would drive unless the projects were built.

Even at the time, however, there was significant evidence that building the rail projects would have little if any impact on traffic congestion or air quality. A landmark 1979 book by Altshuler (a colleague and co-author of mine), who had orchestrated the shift toward more spending on transit under Sargent, concluded, “transit service expansion will normally provide negligible benefits, if any, with respect to energy, air quality, safety, or congestion.” Altshuler, who is now dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, explained that this is due to several factors. First, there are very few corridors without rail that are dense enough to attract significant numbers of new transit riders. Moreover, drivers who get off congested roads by taking mass transit are quickly replaced by motorists whose trips were previously suppressed by congestion. He noted, for example, that studies done after the BART subway tunnel between San Francisco and Oakland opened in the mid-1970s found that one quarter of the line’s 32,000 riders had previously driven to the city. However, traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (the facility most of those travelers had used when driving) hardly went down at all.

Altshuler was not alone in questioning mass transit’s reduction of auto use. His findings on congestion were similar to those put forward by John Meyer, John Kain, and Martin Wohl—three of the nation’s leading urban and transport economists — in their landmark book, The Urban Transportation Problem. Two years after Altshuler’s book came out, Meyer and José Gómez-Ibáñez, another leading transport economist, echoed his findings in Autos, Transit and Cities, another classic work in the field. A decade later, Anthony Downs, one of the nation’s leading urban economists, reaffirmed these findings in Stuck in Traffic.

More recently, although the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 explicitly envisioned transit expansion as one of the ways to achieve required reductions in air pollution, several studies done after the law’s passage raised further questions about the cost-efficiency of reducing auto-related pollution by expanding mass transit. In the early 1990s, for example, David Antonioli, a Kennedy School graduate student doing a project for CLF, found that it cost about $900 to eliminate a ton of volatile organic compounds via vapor control systems on gasoline pumps. In contrast, it cost about $100,000 a ton to remove volatile organic compounds via transit investments. Subsequent reviews of clean air programs by the National Association of Regional Councils, the National Research Council, and the National Academy of Sciences, among others, generally confirmed Antonioli’s findings.

DOING THE MATH

Since the approvals in the early 1990s, the state’s own analyses have also shown that the Big Dig transit projects will do very little to clean the air or relieve traffic congestion. (See table below.) Modeling done by state transportation and environmental officials in 1991, for example, found that all the projects in the state’s agreement with CLF would eliminate about two tons of volatile organic compounds from the air per day—less than 1 percent of the reductions required by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The final environmental impact statement for the Greenbush commuter rail line (one of three branches of the Old Colony rail line where service must be restored under the agreement) concludes: “the air quality impacts, as measured by EPA methods, do not show a consistent or significant air quality benefit.” Despite this finding, the state is moving forward with the project.

The state’s most recent “Program for Mass Transportation” contains similarly unimpressive environmental-improvement numbers. The state estimates it will cost $621 million to build the three projects specified in the new CLF lawsuit (an estimate that is almost surely too low). The projects will eliminate 36 kilograms of volatile organic compounds and 73 kilograms of nitrogen oxides a day—only 0.018 percent of volatile organic compound emissions and 0.037 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions from mobile sources in the region. (Revealingly, the transportation planning documents measure reduction of key pollutants in kilograms while air quality planning documents measure the same pollutants in tons.)

Put another way, if the state were instead to target cars that do not meet current emissions standards, it could gain the exact same emissions reductions by finding and fixing fewer than 200 cars now on the road that do not comply with current emissions requirements. Even if it cost $5,000 per car to identify and fix the high-polluting cars, the cost of such a program—including roadside emissions monitoring, which is technologically feasible, and forcing tune-up or replacement of high-polluting cars—would be $1 million, less than 0.2 percent of the cost of the three transit projects. In fact, the state probably could identify and replace each of those 200 cars with a Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle for about $5 million, which is less than 1 percent of the cost of the three transit projects.

Same thing with traffic congestion. The state calculates that the three outstanding transit projects will result in 6,490 people switching from cars to transit (an estimate that history suggests may well be too high). Because this is a minuscule share of the 1.8 million people in the region who travel to work alone in their car each day, or of the 770,000 who use their cars to come into the city of Boston each day, it’s hard to see how these projects will have any significant impact on highway gridlock.

Moreover, the new riders who turn to mass transit will come at extraordinarily high cost. The state estimates that it will cost $375 million to extend the Green Line to West Medford. If the MBTA funds the project with 50-year bonds at a 3.5 percent interest rate, its debt service would be about $16 million a year. (Shorter-term bonds or higher interest rates would increase the T’s annual debt service costs.) If the Green Line project is built, the state estimates that 3,540 people will switch from using their cars on weekdays to the improved transit service. Assuming about 250 weekday workdays a year, that’s $18 a day in debt service alone for each new weekday rider. In fact, the actual subsidy would be even higher because the extension would require a $1 to $2 per passenger operating subsidy as well, because the MBTA doesn’t come close to covering its operating costs from farebox revenues.

In these terms, the $72 million Arborway Line, which would replace existing bus service, is even worse. According to state transportation planners, it would attract only 200 new riders a day. Using the same assumptions as with the Green Line extension, this suggests a cost of more than $60 per new rider per day. Official state documents suggest the Red/Blue connector is a better deal, if only marginally, because it would require a subsidy of only about $10 a rider per day. That figure, however, is almost certainly too low, because the state has not updated ridership projections for the project to reflect the fact that the new Silver Line will connect with the Red Line and, unlike the Blue Line, will provide a one-seat ride to each terminal at Logan Airport.

Is it wise to spend $10, or $20, or $60 a day for each new rider on the transit system? No, not when the MBTA is talking about cutting suburban bus lines, where subsidies amount to about $2 per rider per day.

Transit advocates generally reject calculations like these, objecting that there is a longstanding pattern of mistaken estimates in planning documents for major projects —the Big Dig’s cost estimates being a prime example. They are right, but not in a way that helps their cause. Several reviews of rail transit projects built in the last two decades have found that projections regularly underestimate the projects’ costs and overestimate their ridership. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened when Massachusetts restored service on two branches of the Old Colony rail line, and on the new Silver Line service as well.

Consider, moreover, how far off the state’s estimates would have to be to make the projects seem like good investments. For the Green Line extension to Medford to be as cost-effective as the suburban bus lines the T wants to cut, the new ridership estimate would have to be low by a factor of 10, which seems highly unlikely.

Many transit advocates also argue, as Warburg did in announcing the lawsuit, that the projects should be built because the MBTA is underfunded at the expense of highways, particularly the Big Dig. This claim, too, is dubious. The official Regional Transportation Plan for the Boston Region estimates that we will spend $9.6 billion on transit projects between 2004 and 2025 and $7.5 billion on highways. (About $4.5 billion of this money is for non-Big Dig projects.) This means that transit—which, according to the US Census, is used for about 15 percent of the work trips in the Boston region—will receive more money than roads, which carry the rest.

More buses would be more cost-effective.

To be fair, the T probably needs the money. A few years ago it was estimated that the MBTA would require $500 million a year to keep its existing system in a state of good repair—about what it would have if it devoted all its capital funds to maintenance. But the T plans to spend only 70 percent of available funds on maintenance and improvements; the rest it will use to expand its system. As a result, the MBTA will only have about $300 million a year to spend on maintenance, about 60 percent of what it has estimated that it needs to keep the system in good shape —which is the stated goal of Gov. Romney’s “Fix it First” policy for spending on highways and transit.

Even if the T had money to spare for service expansions, it could easily find projects that are more cost-effective than the Green Line extension, the Arborway trolley, and the Red Line/Blue Line connector. State planners estimate, for example, that the MBTA could attract more than half the new riders produced by the Green Line extension at less than a third of its cost by buying 100 more buses and building bus lanes and priority traffic signals for its 10 busiest bus routes.

Click here to view table

BREATHING EASIER

It’s time for environmentalists—and officials of state environmental agencies—to realize they are barking up the wrong tree. The simple fact is, emissions from automobiles have dropped significantly and, as a result, the region’s air is getting cleaner, even without these written-in-stone transit projects.

Historically, automobiles were a major environmental problem. In the 1950s, for example, new cars emitted about 13 grams of volatile organic compounds per mile, plus 3.6 grams of nitrogen oxides. In the 1970s, federal clean air laws required dramatic reductions in these pollutants, to about 0.41 grams of volatile organic compounds and one gram of nitrogen oxides per mile. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act required that by 1994 new cars emit about half what was allowed by the 1970s laws. As a result, by the mid-1990s, new cars emitted 97 percent fewer hydrocarbons and 88 percent less nitrogen oxides than cars built in the 1960s.

In Massachusetts, as in most states, the combination of cleaner cars, emissions testing in automobile inspections, reformulated gasoline, and vapor control systems at gasoline pumps have all played major roles in reducing statewide emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, the components of smog. Specifically, between 1990 and 1999, the state reduced volatile organic compound emissions in eastern Massachusetts by 24 percent and nitrogen oxides emissions by 9 percent. More than half these reductions came from cleaner cars and tighter inspection programs.

Looking forward, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection projects that between 1999 and 2007 emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emissions will fall another 21 percent. These reductions in automobile-related emissions will also offset projected increases in emissions from other sources, such as power plants and factories. All this will take place even as total vehicle miles increase by about 15 percent between 1999 and 2007.

The reductions in emissions appear to have had an impact on the region’s air quality already. In 2003 there were just 11 days when the air in any part of the state exceeded the newest, strictest federal standard for ground level ozone. (There was only one day when air quality in the state violated the older standard for ozone, the standard that was in place when the Big Dig was planned.) Moreover, six of the violations were recorded at monitoring stations on Cape Cod or in western Massachusetts, places that are downwind of pollution flowing from elsewhere, typically the New York metropolitan area. Air quality fluctuates, and 2003 was an unusually good year. But in general, air quality in the state is improving, suggesting that some of our air quality problems have nothing to do with Massachusetts conditions at all.

As a result of aggressive advocacy, the transit projects CLF is now taking the state to court over are part of the state’s official plan for complying with the federal Clean Air Act, which gives them the force of law. But they are not there because they have anything to do with air quality improvement. They are there because of political expediency.

Can the state get out of the commitments? Yes, but not easily. The state is allowed to replace them with other projects that produce equal or greater air quality benefits. Given that the projects do not produce major air quality benefits, this is an easy enough standard to meet. The regulations, however, also state that the substitution can occur only if the state show that the projects give up on are fiscally, environmentally, or technologically unfeasible. A few years ago, state transportation officials tried to argue that the Arborway restoration was, in fact, unfeasible because it would produce few benefits and cause traffic tie-ups on crowded Centre Street in Jamaica Plain. But advocates of the project fought the move and state environmental regulators rejected it.

The problem in transportation politics today is that environmentalists and community activists have captured the debate, making it appear that those who question the need for expanded transit lines are against environmental protection and don’t want to help those who need public transportation. I am neither anti-environment nor anti-transit. But I do believe that we live in a time when state and local budgets are badly squeezed and there’s little prospect of significant new aid from the federal government. We are, therefore, especially obliged to spend money wisely in our efforts to protect and improve the environment and expand transportation options for those who need them. In neither case are costly investments in expanded fixed-rail transit systems justified.

We can significantly improve air quality at modest cost by ensuring that buses are cleaner (which the MBTA is already doing, replacing old diesel buses with new ones that are powered by compressed natural gas) and by finding and fixing (even replacing, at full cost) the relatively few automobiles that emit significant amounts of pollutants. Similarly, our transit system should be geared to providing mobility for those who most need it: the elderly, the disabled, and the poor. Study after study has shown that extensive and flexible bus systems are the most effective way to meet both these needs, at a cost far less than digging tunnels between Red and Blue Line subways or laying rails to Medford.

If we follow sensible approaches to environmental and transportation improvement, we not only will address real problems, we also will have money left over to spend on other pressing problems, such as expanding health care coverage or providing preschool education to children who would otherwise start school far behind their classmates. But we cannot do so until we stop following Frank Sargent’s policies—and start following his example instead.

David Luberoff is executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and co-author, with Alan Altshuler, of Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment

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