Downing Transportation plan. Transit for all. Equity. Regional Empowerment. Modernization
Ben Downing riding public transportation

As income inequality deepens, infrastructure crumbles, traffic congestion soars, and our climate changes, we all see and pay the cost of Beacon Hill’s failure to invest in our transportation needs. As Governor, I won’t kick the can any further down the road. Our transportation plan focuses first on rebuilding the public’s trust in the systems and agencies that connect them to jobs, schools, loved ones, and so much more. Then it gets to rebuilding our infrastructure to address the climate crisis, economic justice, and racial equity.

A recent study revealed that just one part of our broken system — our car economy in Massachusetts — costs approximately $64 billion annually, with more than half of that coming from public funds. This amounts to about $14,000 per household in the state, with those owning vehicles paying an additional $12,000 on average in direct costs. We see the harsh impacts of a neglected system everyday on our roads. Traffic in Boston ranks second worst in the country — and this problem is only exacerbated by deep-seated mistrust in our transportation system. Where Massachusetts taxpayers are already paying anywhere from $14,000-26,000 per household for one part of our broken system, it’s time to prioritize investments in our transportation infrastructure as inextricably linked to our efforts on climate action, economic justice, and racial equity. Here is how we will achieve transportation justice across the state when I’m Governor:

1. Fare-Free Public Transit

Problem: In Massachusetts, we must rethink how to provide equitable transportation access to our most vulnerable residents across the Commonwealth. According to the Institute for Transit & Policy Development, the lowest-earning fifth of Americans spends nearly 30% of their income on transportation. In the U.S., buses are often a critical lifeline for poor and working class families. In Lawrence, for example, surveys revealed that 90% of riders on Lawrence’s free bus routes had salaries under $20,000. With the price of a single bus ride at $1.25 in Springfield and $1.75 in Worcester, it is no question that cost is too often a prohibitive barrier to those who need bus services most in Massachusetts.

Solution: Under the Downing Transportation Plan, we will commit to fare-free regional public transit as a top priority in Massachusetts.

Voters have long understood that transit services should be truly accessible to all, and especially those who need and rely on it most; what’s missing is a similar commitment from Beacon Hill. With full fare-free transit as a top priority, we will start with a commitment to (1) make all MBTA and RTA buses fare free by the end of my first year in office, and (2) make the MBTA fare free by the end of my first term.

The commitment to prioritize fare-free buses touches each of my core principles in this campaign: climate action, economic justice, and racial equity. MBTA statistics show that 48% of MBTA bus riders were people of color, compared to 31% of rapid transit riders and 15% of commuter rail riders. This makes bus accessibility an issue disproportionately impacting our Black and Brown residents. Funding our regional bus systems — both in Boston and in our Gateway Cities — is also a matter of economic equity; when Lawrence made three bus routes fare-free, 87% of riders who benefited had incomes under $20,000. Systemwide, 42% of MBTA bus riders had low incomes, compared to 26% of rapid transit riders and 7% of commuter rail riders. Many residents rely on buses as their primary mode of transportation to work, education, worship, and community, and my administration will treat them like the essential public service that they are.

A fare-free bus model is especially important for equitable access to transit in our Gateway Cities. We see the benefits of this model in case studies out of both Lawrence and Worcester:

  • In Lawrence, the city decided in 2019 to make three of their busiest MVRTA bus routes free for two years. This resulted in a 24% increase in ridership on those free routes, largely exceeding expectations.
  • In Worcester, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau report described a fare-free bus model as “perhaps the most effective ridership-boosting plan available to bus systems.” The Worcester Regional Transit Authority (“WRTA”) found that fares in 2018 made up only 14% of the WRTA’s total revenue, well behind municipal assessments, federal grants, and state assistance. In response to the pandemic, WRTA went fare free as a COVID measure and has extended that fare suspension through December of 2021.
  • Universal free fares are a matter of economic justice, but they also make service faster and more efficient for every rider by eliminating fareboxes and facilitating all-door boarding.

Making buses fare-free is an effective way to deliver equitable transit services to our most vulnerable residents. It is an effective anti-poverty policy that will both increase ridership and allow lower-income residents a financially reliable means of commuting to and from work. This alone will drive our state economy and serve as an access point for many into the workforce. Because we know state funding and other subsidies already cover the vast majority of Regional Transit Authority expenses—and because fares only account for a small portion of RTA budgets—this model will not harm any revenue stream essential to RTA operations.

The overarching funding priority of fare-free regional transit (including commuter and ferry lines) will also be a foundational principle underlying all state-level transit policy decisions under my leadership. We will also commit to free transit access to people who are unhoused and people who are formerly incarcerated through pre-loaded cards to be distributed by community service providers. Public transit is a public good, and should be accessible to all who wish to use it throughout the Commonwealth.

2. Regional Ballot Initiatives & Transportation Commissions

Problem: Regional priorities and needs vary significantly. The needs of the South Coast often vary from those in Worcester County or the Pioneer Valley. While it is important to have state agencies lead on statewide initiatives, it is critical that regions are empowered to address their unique needs. Far too often, our state-level transportation conversations begin and end with Metro Boston, depriving communities in other regions of the chance to shape their transportation future.

Solution: Allow voters to approve of transportation plans via regional ballot initiatives, administered through a network of regional transportation commissions.

Regional transportation ballot initiatives allow voters in regions across the state to fund their own transportation needs (RTA’s, roads, bike infrastructure, etc.) with locally-assessed taxes. In states such as Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Kansas, cities or counties bring policy proposals directly to the public and fund them through locally-assessed taxes. Instead of waiting in the wings while other states use these initiatives to implement the most transformative transportation projects in the country, it is time to bring this model to Massachusetts.

Municipalities and regions should have the autonomy to identify, fund, and accomplish their unique priorities, to supplement state efforts. Regional ballot initiatives accomplish that, and Massachusetts residents have consistently supported giving communities the tools that they need to raise revenue for their own transportation systems. Growing up in Pittsfield — and as Chair of the Gateway Cities caucus in the state legislature — I know what it feels like to have our communities’ priorities be an afterthought in state debates. My administration will work to rebuild trust between our communities and state government — and shifting this power into the hands of regions and municipalities through direct democracy is a concrete first step.

With an eye toward accessibility and accountability, I will appoint a Regional Transportation Commission for each RTA service area to address each region’s unique transportation needs and oversee implementation of the plans approved through regional ballot initiatives. Each of these commissions will include five members: one RTA rider, one expert in transportation equity, one member of a disability commission in the region, one member recommended by organized labor, and one member of the business community. Of these five members, I will ensure that at least one has substantial experience in climate adaptation and resilience. Board and commission appointments reflect the values of an administration, and I will appoint Regional Transportation Commissions who will fight for equitable and accessible transportation options across Massachusetts. 

In line with this commitment to our regional network of transportation providers, I will more than double state-level funding to $200 million for non-MBTA regional transit authorities (“RTAs”) in Massachusetts. RTA funding is broadly inadequate and historically leaves Gateway Cities like Worcester, Springfield, and Lawrence most directly impacted. Unlike the MBTA, RTAs do not have a dedicated funding source and are therefore subject to wide fluctuations in the state budget.

3. Electrifying & Modernizing Our Regional Rail Network

Problem: Our outmoded diesel-powered commuter rail imposes profound costs on environmental justice communities, worsening health for residents in neighborhoods across Massachusetts. Hazardous air quality is a major social determinant of health in Massachusetts, and its burdens fall most heavily on communities of color in Boston and in our Gateway Cities. Unreliable and infrequent rail service also drives pollution by forcing thousands of residents into idling cars on highways and city streets every morning, cuts off thousands more from jobs and opportunity, and hamstrings the businesses which power regional economies in Gateway Cities. A Downing Administration will make dismantling and redressing this structural environmental racism a key priority.

Solution: The Downing Administration will electrify every commuter rail line by 2030, moving Massachusetts toward a regional rail model, and will complete electrification on three key environmental justice lines by 2026.

I am prioritizing rail electrification because of two key benefits for environmental justice. 

  • First, electric trains emit virtually no particulate matter into the air, improving the health of communities they serve and reducing a key cause of preventable illnesses such as asthma and cancer, which are too often driven by environmental racism.
  • Second, electric trains enable a rail system with more frequent and reliable service, creating an alternative to driving dependable enough to ride to work, education, worship, and community across Massachusetts.
  • I see this issue the way TransitMatters does: “Regional Rail is about extending freedom from car dependence.

As we bring our regional rail network into the 21st century, I am also committed to establishing universal design principles so that every resident can use every transportation service our state has to offer. Electrification is a vital first step in building fast, frequent, and reliable regional rail — and in line with this broader vision for our rail network, I will make raising platforms to facilitate level boarding a key priority at every station in our regional rail network.

Transit advocates have shown us that an electrified regional rail system is within reach in Massachusetts if our public officials commit to making it happen. As Governor, I will appoint a Secretary of Transportation committed to delivering on this vision. My team will focus first on electrification for lines serving Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan; Brockton and the South Shore; and Chelsea, Lynn, and the North Shore. In my Climate Plan, I commited to have a fully electric fleet of buses in at least 20 EJ communities by 2024 with the goal of “ensuring that climate and environmental policy reforms proactively address issues of equity, discrimination, and disproportionate harm.” Prioritizing investment in the communities most harmed by our broken transportation status quo is part of my approach to embedding equity in policy.

4. East-West Rail by 2030

Problem: A state transportation system should knit our regions together, allowing communities in each region to access the opportunity, culture, and beauty of every other. As anyone who has ever waited in Pittsfield for a Lakeshore Limited Amtrak train that’s never coming can tell you, our transportation system does not deliver on this promise. When I represented our Commonwealth’s westernmost communities in the Senate, I saw how this disconnection excludes the Berkshires and the Pioneer Valley from key parts of the economic, cultural, and political life of Massachusetts, and how this harms every aspect of our state’s vitality. When a kid from my neighborhood in East Boston can’t take reliable public transportation to school at UMass Amherst, our entire community suffers. When a constituent from my hometown in Pittsfield can’t travel to Beacon Hill to make their voice heard in government, our entire democracy suffers.

Solution: I will commit to ensuring we have robust East-West passenger rail connecting Boston to Albany, NY via Gateway Cities in Central and Western Massachusetts by 2030.

Studies, reports, and surveys on the issue of rail are helpful, but I don’t need another study to tell me just how essential passenger rail is to the future of Massachusetts. Not only would East-West rail serve as a key access and opportunity point for those in Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield into the Greater Boston market, but it will also allow those in Boston to participate more expediently in the greater state economy.

Just as South Coast Rail is now underway and set to be completed by 2024 (a timeline I will ensure is met when in office), we need East-West rail that will boost our economy and enable transportation between Boston and our Gateway Cities across the state. Action on this issue has been deferred for decades, and funds from the pending federal infrastructure package will arm Massachusetts with additional resources to get it done.

Dedicated legislative leaders from Western Massachusetts have been fighting for East-West Rail for decades, but making it happen will require a committed executive branch ready to fight hard for its implementation. As the second Governor from Western Massachusetts in the past hundred years, I would make connecting our state’s regions a central priority in my transportation agenda.

5. An Equitable and Climate-Resilient MBTA

Problem: Anyone who relies on the MBTA knows how frustrating it can be; trains come late or not at all, frequent derailments disrupt service across the network, and the impacts of our climate crisis threaten every aspect of our public transit system. I ride the Blue Line with my one-year-old son, Eamon, and we’ve had to walk out of the tunnel from under Boston Harbor three times already. As flooding gets more frequent in the coming years, that tunnel will become impassable more often, stranding thousands of riders in environmental justice communities in East Boston and Revere. Similar changes threaten public transit access in environmental justice communities across the state. We need a Governor and a Board who understand the scale and scope of the problems facing the T, but the newly-proposed MBTA governing board gives only one seat to a T rider and environmental justice community resident, and no seats focused on climate resiliency for the years to come.

Solution: I will appoint an MBTA governing board where the majority of all members are MBTA riders or workers and the majority of all members live in environmental justice communities, and I will appoint at least one transportation climate expert to a board seat.

MBTA riders deserve to know that the T’s governing board understands our experiences and is ready to build a resilient and equitable system for the decades ahead. I’ll be riding the Blue Line from East Boston to Beacon Hill each day as Governor, and I will appoint transportation leaders who represent the experiences and perspectives of T riders.

6. Safe & Livable Streets

Problem: On unsafe roads across the Commonwealth, car crashes are exacting a terrible cost. Car crashes are a public health crisis in communities across Massachusetts, and like nearly every public health crisis we face, they exact disproportionate harm in Black and Brown communities. We cannot continue a status-quo approach that treats fatal crashes as inevitable, or even as an acceptable cost of doing business. When we plan for a traffic system in Massachusetts, the only acceptable number of preventable fatal crashes is zero.

Solution: Massachusetts will commit to Vision Zero and support regional and local efforts to make our streets safer and more accessible.

Vision Zero

Since 2016, there have been approximately 433 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Massachusetts. Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. Where more fatal crashes happen in Black neighborhoods in Massachusetts, we also know this issue disproportionately impacts communities of color. While Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have implemented Vision Zero at a local level, Massachusetts as a whole must commit to the effort and use state coordinating resources to help drive execution at the municipal level. In addition, there are a number of bills the Massachusetts Vision Zero coalition has led on that I will support and sign into law when in office in an effort to improve biker, driver, and pedestrian safety in our state.

Under a Downing Administration, I will also prioritize:

  • ADA compliance: In New England, our infrastructure is old and outdated, making accessibility a critical issue for our disabled residents in Massachusetts. I will prioritize supporting our cities and towns as they bring public streets—including essential access points to public facilities—into compliance with the American Disabilities Act. Under my administration, I will establish an ADA Advisory Council to both review and approve of grants and awards and ensure the state is working with local governments on this issue.
  • Financially-incentivized bike plans: Just as the MassDOT Complete Streets program offers financial incentives to cities and towns for development and implementation of plans for safe, accessible streets—we need to do the same for Bike Master Plans at the local level. I will both increase funding for the Complete Streets program and ensure we similarly incentivize cities and towns to implement Bike Master Plans. I will also implement state-level planning in ensuring we regionally knit together our local bike paths together across cities and towns, creating a safe network of pathways for cyclists across the state.
  • The piloted Shared Streets and Spaces grant program that supports municipalities and transit authorities in improving public spaces is good, but it could be better. Grant programs like this can favor municipalities with more staff and greater planning bandwidth — resulting in disproportionate funding for those with greater resources at the start. In an effort to center equity and foster implementation in high-need areas, I would increase technical assistance for communities with fewer planning department resources. This assistance would include state-led training on how to implement these programs and message them effectively at the local level. In line with my foundational commitment to environmental justice, I would mandate that 50% of these grant funds go to EJ communities across the state.

7. Investing Federal Funds in Transit Equity

In the coming years, Massachusetts will receive nearly $5 billion in federal grants through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). How we spend them is a test of our priorities and our commitment to tackling climate change, ending child poverty, and building racial and economic justice in Massachusetts across policy areas. In August, I called on Beacon Hill to invest 80% of this money in climate priorities, including public transportation, affordable housing, a Massachusetts Climate Corps, vocational and technical education, and clean energy investments. Beyond ARPA, Democrats in Congress are fighting for unprecedented investments in our transportation system, and the next gubernatorial administration will help determine whether these funds transform our transportation system or shore up our same broken status quo.

Solution: When administering federal dollars, I will prioritize new spending on transportation infrastructure for environmental justice communities. This includes investment in electrification on environmental justice lines, fare-free bus service, expanded access in rural areas and other communities that are underserved by transit, and new infrastructure for safer streets.

As MassBudget notes in a recent report, ARPA funds can be spent on a broad range of transportation infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods and other communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Our state government has failed to invest in transportation for environmental justice communities; we’ve chronically underfunded our RTAs, rail service, rapid transit, and safe streets infrastructure. New federal funding programs represent a once-in-a-generation chance to counter this legacy, and a Downing Administration will not miss this opportunity to right that wrong.

8. Robust Revenue Streams

While ARPA and other federal funds can provide a down payment on the future of our transportation system, our transit infrastructure deserves a host of revenue streams that meet the public demand for innovation and accessibility at all levels. There are a number of levers we can pull to ensure transportation is funded in a way that meets the moment for Massachusetts:

Fair Share Amendment

We need comprehensive tax reform, including but not limited to passing the Fair Share Amendment via the ballot initiative in 2022. This additional 4% tax on million-dollar earners would result in new revenue of approximately $2 billion a year to be spent, in part, on “the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges and public transportation.”

Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing is a form of road pricing where autos pay a charge to enter and/or circulate within a defined zone (here: a highly-trafficked urban area). This form of road pricing can be used to both target the immediate issue of traffic congestion and maximize benefits to redress the systemic inequities of highway and road infrastructure. Where we know that communities like Chelsea, Chinatown, East Boston, and Roxbury bear the brunt of air pollution related to road congestion, congestion pricing is a mechanism for alleviating this harm and reinvesting in environmental justice across the state.

  • Looking at a case study, Stockholm’s 7-month congestion pricing pilot program resulted in a 22% decrease in traffic volumes from 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM, 23% increase in park-and-ride lot use, and 14% reduction in emissions from road traffic.
  • In Massachusetts, we can implement congestion pricing in the Metro Boston area during peak hours. Under a Downing Administration, we will direct all congestion pricing revenue to transit, walking, and bike-friendly infrastructure across the Commonwealth—with a 50% investment commitment in environmental justice communities. This model of congestion pricing would also be means-based and would include targeted caps and/or exemptions for lower-income and disabled residents. A bill currently before the legislature would authorize a special commission on roadway and congestion pricing, and I will prioritize that bill’s passage when in office.

State Gas Tax

According to law, state gas tax revenue may only be spent on transportation, making it an essential source of funding for our transportation infrastructure. The gas tax in California is 51 cents per gallon. In Pennsylvania, it’s 58 cents per gallon. Massachusetts did not raise the gas tax at all between 1991 and 2013, and even in 2013 it was only raised 3 cents. This resulted in the tax losing 41% of its purchasing power due to inflation, and our current rate of 26.6 cents per gallon (the 24 cent Massachusetts Excise tax + 2.6 cent underground fuel tank cleanup charge) is about 2 cents lower than 29 other states. I would propose a 10-15 cent gas tax increase implemented gradually over the course of three years. A recent MassINC poll showed that more than 60% of voters support raising the gas tax if the funds are used for transportation-related purposes. It’s time to adjust our gas tax rate and use 100% of the funds to better our roads, bridges, and transportation infrastructure as a whole.

TNC Sales Tax

In 2019, there were 91.1 million ride-hailing trips in Massachusetts alone—producing a carbon footprint of well over 100,000 tons. These transportation network companies (“TNCs”) directly contribute to congestion by often creating new car-based trips that otherwise would have been taken by transit, biking, or walking. There is currently a .20 cent fee per trip, putting us well below regional and national averages. When the legislature passed a comprehensive transportation bond bill in 2020, Governor Baker pocket vetoed the section that would have increased the fees per ride. We need a more robust sales tax applied to TNCs that directly funds transportation infrastructure in lower-income, underserved communities where ride hailing may often be the only reliable means of transit.

I support the proposal put forth by the Transportation For Massachusetts coalition that proposes a fee of 6.25% for single riders and 4.25% for ride shares. The lower fee for shared rides would incentivize ride sharing, thus decreasing congestion. Where the assessment as it stands generated $18.2 million in revenue, this would generate over $40 million in revenue. Addressing issues with the TNC industry must also include tackling inequity in transit employment. Gig economy workers deserve employee status, and are entitled to workplace rights, minimum wage pay, and benefits in accordance with that status. When in office, I will work to ensure those protections are in place for TNC workers across the state.