Two or three months ago, state lawmakers had important issues on the radar – school funding and major public transportation spending, among them. Those priorities seem like ancient history today.
On March 4, the House passed legislation featuring $600 million in new revenue from increased gas and corporation taxes, and new fees on ride-sharing services and rental cars, that would pay for transportation infrastructure improvements. The major highways were being crushed under the daily swarm of drivers and subway, bus and commuter rail riders had to deal with overtaxed and often-unreliable service. And what about today? Nothing has changed except the commuters and public transit riders. The underlying problems are still there. The coronavirus pandemic has changed our immediate priorities, of course, but it also should force us to imagine how public transportation and major highways will be used when the pandemic is over and workers find a new “normal.” Will employees and more companies find wisdom in continuing widespread work from home, trading in the commute for efficient networking and teleconferences? Will former train and subway riders shun those options in favor of a return to drivers in cars without passengers?
However things shake out, serious money still must be spent to upgrade our highways and public transportation. Coincidentally, some transit fixes were underway before the pandemic hit, including elimination of some above-ground stops on the Green Line that were too close together and slowed the commuting times unnecessarily.
We will still need reliable and robust subways, buses and commuter rail lines when this pandemic is over. And commuters will again climb in their cars to drive on major highways to and from Greater Boston, so those roads must be addressed. Transportation planners, lawmakers and social scientists must work together to try to anticipate what will need to be done, in what order and what should be paid for first.
Putting all planning and construction on ice without trying to think through what the needs of workers and employers will be when this is over would miss an important opportunity. We will go back to work eventually, and thousands of people will resume the same methods and commutes they were doing before the coronavirus forced everything to put on the brakes. This is a time for serious consideration about what we will need to get around when we can again leave home and go to work.