Report: State has 'reached a tipping point' on traffic

TIM JEAN/Staff photoTraffic moves on Interstate 495 in Lawrence and Andover, over Route 28.

Gov. Charlie Baker wants to explore adding new lanes to highways in Massachusetts and charging motorists to use them as part of a wider response to congestion.

Baker suggested “managed lanes” last week as his administration released a new report that concludes the state has “reached a tipping point” on dealing with traffic.

“It would be a big departure from the standard operating procedure in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “But when you look at the various ways people have tried to deal with congestion in major metropolitan areas, that is the one that I believe is fairer and has the most likelihood of being successful.”

The Republican said he remains opposed to proposals for “congestion pricing,” where tolls are lowered during off-peak times and raised during rush hour, on the Tobin Bridge and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the 157-page report released by the state Department of Transportation found traffic woes are increasing for commuters, particularly in Greater Boston.

“When people can’t plan for their commute to take the same amount of time each day, it affects works schedules, child care arrangements, school drop-offs and pickups, and a variety of other issues,” Baker said.

A traffic-snarled segment of Interstate 93 south in Medford, from the Mystic Valley Parkway to the Fellsway, was listed as the worst section of highway for commuters into the city.

MassDOT researchers found a variety of causes and noted that disruptions such as disabled vehicles, crashes or inclement weather often have a “cascading effect.”

“The roadway network is now so full that relatively small insults — a crash, bad weather or an event that draws people to Boston — can create cascading congestion,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

State transportation officials say the increasing popularity of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have contributed to congestion, but acknowledge they don’t know by how much.

Last month, Baker filed a bill that would require ride-hailing companies to provide more information about where and when they are picking up and dropping off riders.

Baker said the bill would give communities better data to plan for the explosive growth of the companies, which would allow them to take steps to curb congestion in specific areas.

Besides adding tolled lanes to roads, the latest study recommended easing traffic bottlenecks, adding more dedicated bus lanes, building affordable housing closer to public transit, and working with businesses to improve carpooling and commuting routes.

Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, said the study “makes a meaningful contribution” to addressing congestion but falls short on proposals.

“The governor must more aggressively confront congestion by piloting and testing smarter tolling approaches that have worked in other regions and can work here,” he said. “In the absence of implementing this essential tool, it will be challenging for the commonwealth to adequately tackle this growing crisis.”

Dempsey said building new highway lanes “won’t fix our congestion problem, and it runs counter to the commonwealth’s environmental and transportation goals.”

Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said policymakers can no longer ignore the mounting traffic woes, which are beginning to affect the economy.

“We need to do whatever we can deal with this problem,” he said. “Not only is this going to increase people’s frustrations, it’s going to hurt our competitiveness in attracting jobs and talent in the future.”


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