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Bernard Cohen

The road ahead for Mass. transportation policy

WITH THE CONSTRUCTION phase of the Big Dig substantially complete, the project that dominated state transportation policy for two decades and five administrations is moving into the rearview mirror. Massachusetts is on the threshold of a new era in transportation. While much work remains to ensure an appropriate close out of the project, it is time to end the Central Artery's monopoly over transportation policy and ask, "What comes next?"

A look at the system reveals aging infrastructure, insufficient coordination between agencies that shape transportation policy, and a funding structure perpetuated by previous administrations that left a $15 billion to $19 billion shortfall for maintenance alone -- before any new projects are considered.

Moreover, there is a growing urgency around global climate change, security concerns, and a Massachusetts economy that needs to be re energized. It is time transportation policies addressed those issues as well.

A comprehensive and well-maintained network of roads and bridges, convenient and affordable rail and bus transportation, and complementary airport capacity will open the way for robust job growth, better environmental stewardship, and stronger local communities. The next era of transportation requires a modernized system that serves the needs of every region in the Commonwealth.

To that end, the governor has charged me with six principles to guide our work:

Greater Coordination and Transparency. We must break down silos that have divided transportation agencies and develop policies and projects in the context of statewide goals. On July 1, I became the chairman of the Turnpike Authority and assumed a seat on the Massport board. At the Turnpike Authority, I have laid out a "Blueprint for Change" that includes rebuilding professional capability, refocusing the Authority on its core mission, and restoring public confidence in safety. These are steps in the right direction, but will not solve the coordination problems of the past.

Today, Governor Patrick and I will join leaders from every major transportation agency in the state to sign the Massachusetts Mobility Compact, a pledge to coordinate the missions of the different agencies that direct transportation policy in our state. While this seems like a common-sense change, there has never been this level of cooperation and coordination across all the state transportation organizations.

A Focus on Economic Growth. Sound transportation can be the difference between steady growth and economic stagnation. Roads, rails, airports, and ports provide the necessary support for national and international shipping, while affordable, convenient public transportation links local economies, housing markets, and recreational and educational opportunities. The previous administration's policy of "Fix-it-First" failed to recognize the importance of expanding transportation to fuel economic growth. Proactive investments would enhance and expand our existing network, keeping us competitive with areas that are investing billions of dollars into new infrastructure. Either we step up now, or we will watch jobs, investments, and other opportunities go to the states and nations that will.

Energy and the Environment. Transportation contributes about one-third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year. Meanwhile, rising costs of gasoline and oil, all of it imported, hit families and businesses harder every day. Transportation initiatives can be aligned with environmental goals. Efficient vehicles, improved public transit, and greater attention to pedestrian and bicycle access translate into reduced congestion, cleaner air, and less reliance on foreign oil and other fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

Financial Stability. The staggering $15 billion to $19 billion budget gap highlights the need to change the way transportation is funded . In the coming months, the Transportation Finance Commission expects to release a report recommending cost efficiencies and new funding. We will then begin a public process to determine equitable, intelligent ways to cut costs, spend wisely, broaden and stabilize funding, and close gaps in our finances.

Regional Equity. There are perceived geographic inequities in the way we fund transportation and where we decide to invest transportation dollars. The focus on the Central Artery/Tunnel and its cost and mismanagement has left communities outside of the Route 128 belt feeling shortchanged. We must commit to serving the entire Commonwealth, ensuring that regions are contributing fairly to the transportation assets they use and that every community benefits from transportation investments. We are already improving coordination with regional planning and transportation agencies across the state and working to enhance our delivery of transportation funds to smaller cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth.

Project Delivery. Too often, it takes too long to plan and execute projects. Working with industry partners, stakeholders, and agency staff, we need to retool planning processes and streamline project development while remaining responsible stewards of our state and federal transportation dollars.

There is no crystal ball to tell us what will dominate transportation policy in the future. It is essential that we keep each of these principles in view as we lower the curtain on the Central Artery Project and take up the collective challenge of defining the next transportation era in Massachusetts.

Bernard Cohen is transportation secretary of Massachusetts.