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Planning for tomorrow's transit needs -- today

TRANSPORTATION HAS been in the headlines a lot lately, and the news has been bad.

In March, the Commonwealth's Transportation Finance Commission identified a nearly $20 billion shortfall over the next 20 years just to continue operating the state's current transportation assets. The Big Dig may be just about done, but the price has gone up by at least another $210 million. A Storrow Drive tunnel is crumbling, as is the Longfellow Bridge, which spans the Charles River linking Boston and Cambridge. Estimates to repair the single bridge start at $200 million, and the actual cost may end up being much higher.

New projects threaten to add to transportation finance woes. Last month, Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to build a $1.4 billion commuter rail line connecting Boston with New Bedford and Fall River. More recently, the MBTA conducted its first test run of the Greenbush commuter rail line to the South Shore, which is scheduled to open this summer.

The construction price tag for these projects is just part of the problem; fare revenue generated by the new lines will cover only a fraction of their operating costs.

Massachusetts' problems are not unique. Governments across the nation are wrestling with questions about how to fund new transit lines or whether to raise revenue by leasing toll highways to private operators.

To successfully confront these issues, we must address a series of critical strategic questions:

What should the transportation system look like in the future?

What are the options for transforming the existing system to match this vision?

What resources are available to implement these options?

Determining Massachusetts' future transportation needs requires analysis of an evolving environment. Where will people live? What about average ages and education levels? The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has been attempting to answer these questions through its MetroFutures program.

Transportation serves multiple purposes, but one fundamental principle that should guide policy makers as they seek answers to these questions is that its primary purpose is to support economic growth and prosperity.

The easiest way to achieve a system that is customer driven and supports economic growth is through market pricing. The right transportation strategy anticipates and responds to needs for which customers are willing to pay, and new technologies have revolutionized the use of user fees to fund transportation.

Historically, gas tax revenue has been the source of funds for most of the Commonwealth's road and bridge needs. But the tax hasn't gone up since 1991, losing 30 percent of its buying power in the intervening 16 years. Even if it were indexed to inflation or set as a percentage of the price of a gallon of gas, rather than as a fixed 18.4 cents per gallon levy, increasing fuel efficiency and the rise of alternate fuel vehicles are reducing its effectiveness.

We must harness the potential of new technologies and identify management and institutional changes that will help us address serious challenges.

That means looking at surface transportation as a single system rather than individual modes. Revenue from electronic highway tolling could be used to rebuild a depleted freight rail system that would take trucks off our highways. Electronic tolls could also be a source of revenue for such transit projects as the Greenbush and New Bedford/Fall River lines .

An important management change would be to enlist private sector entities that have an interest in the system -- trucking, shipping, freight rail, and logistics companies, as well as motorists -- to play a role in system planning and funding.

Increased competition and input from stakeholders would create incentives to take a lifecycle approach to transportation infrastructure, as opposed to the current tendency to build new assets, then fail to maintain them.

Outdated funding mechanisms, diminishing revenue streams, and failure to maintain what we build have landed Massachusetts in a $20 billion hole.

Instead of continuing down the same path that got us here, we need to adopt a financially sustainable approach to transportation that focuses on the customers of tomorrow rather than the ways of the past.

Joseph M. Giglio, a former member of the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission, is author of "Driving Questions: Developing a National Transportation Strategy."