Boston.com: Ayanna Pressley on making the MBTA free, congestion pricing, and shifting the paradigm of transportation policy

October 23, 2019
In The News

The need to reinvest in the country’s transportation infrastructure has been a simmering issue for years on Capitol Hill. Advocates say federal funding for highways and public transit has lagged for decades, leading to an increasingly obsolete and inefficient network.

However, according to Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the solution isn’t just about increasing spending, but where that money is spent.

“Transportation literally affects everything,” Pressley told Boston.com in an interview. “It’s ultimately just a social justice issue.”

Last week, the first-term Massachusetts congresswoman — along with two Democratic colleagues, Illinois Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, who represents a Chicago-area district, and California Rep. Mark Takano, who hails from the suburbs of Los Angeles — founded the Future of Transportation Caucus, a new congressional working group aimed at influencing policymaking when it comes to federal transportation investment ahead of a reauthorization deadline next September and beyond.

In July, the Senate advanced a five-year surface transportation spending bill that would increase overall funding by more than 25 percent. Pressley emphasizes that boosting spending is just one piece of the puzzle. The focus on the Future of Transportation caucus will be making sure it’s spent equitably.

“This is really a paradigm shift,” Pressley said.

“For too long, we have focused on simply increasing funding, rather than being focused on multimodal investments,” she added, noting that investment has historically “been focused on expansion of roadways.”

While the Dorchester Democrat says maintaining the country’s aging roads and bridges is a priority, Pressley also says that the focus on motorists has come at a cost. So-called transit deserts — not only in Boston, but in cities across the country — have perpetuated economic and racial disparities when it comes to access to jobs, education, and health, she said.

In Pressley’s 7th District, local officials and advocates have bemoaned the lack of reliable and frequent service connecting certain neighborhoods — such as Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park — with economic centers. According to a recent study, black bus riders spent 64 more hours a year traveling than white bus riders, while Latinx bus riders spent an additional 10 hours. Additionally, Pressley said she recently rode the T with a local transit advocate who used a wheelchair, whose four-mile commute took two hours due to broken elevators and lack of maintenance.

Pressley stresses the term “connectivity” and how closely transportation is linked to equitable outcomes — or the the lack thereof — in other areas.

“We can do the work of making a more livable city, and jobs that treat people with dignity, and housing that is quality and affordable, and all of those things,” she said. “But if people can’t navigate the city to get to work, to get to childcare, to get to school, it’s really is all in vain.”

Pressley says the new caucus, which already has 22 members, will act as a “convener” to directly hear from a diverse set of commuters (motorists, public transit users, cyclists, pedestrians, people with disabilities) in order to influence and inform federal policy, particularly when it comes to the Democrat-controlled House’s own upcoming surface transportation bill.

During a press conference last week, she said the caucus will explore initiatives that “promote walking, biking, and public transit over vehicles.” When it comes to specific policies, Pressley told Boston.com that “every idea needs to be on the table.” But she also acknowledged the benefits of two recent ideas that have garnered attention in her home district, making the MBTA free and congestion pricing, both of which Pressley says would contribute to equity and environmental goals.

“Personally, I love the idea of a fare-free MBTA,” she said,

Pressley noted that she recently co-authored a Boston Globe opinion piece on transportation priorities with her former Boston City Council colleague Michelle Wu, and has recently championed the idea of a fare-free MBTA, calling for Boston to follow the example of other cities around the world in order to encourage ridership on the public transit system.

“I think it not only promotes public transit over vehicles but it reduces congestion and vehicle emissions,” Pressley said. “It also removes financial barriers for low-income neighbors to get to work or to pick up their children from school.”

Pressley also says she sees the appeal of some form of congestion pricing, in which individual motorists are charged a fee to drive during rush hour or on high-traffic roadways. Amid the Boston area’s congestion problems (which are by some measures the worst in the country), the idea of using tolls to alleviate traffic has gained traction with some local lawmakers and transit advocates, though Gov. Charlie Baker has consistently opposed it, citing concerns that it would be unfair to drivers without the flexibility to adjust their commutes.

“I think it’s certainly something to be considered,” Pressley said.

In addition to addressing traffic congestion, Pressley says congestion pricing is also “an issue of environmental justice,” since highways tend to run through low-income and minority communities, disproportionately exposing those residents to the health risks from concentrated car emissions in the air.

“If you look at a community like Chinatown or Chelsea or East Boston, communities that have been in closer proximity to highways, they have the highest incidences of cancer and asthma,” Pressley said. “So ultimately this is about improving air quality. It’s not just about reducing congestion; it’s about reducing vehicle emissions. I think, from an equity standpoint, what’s important is that then those funds are invested back into the public transit system to better serve communities.”

During her run for Congress last year, transportation was one of the main issues Pressley highlighted in her broader “equity agenda,” pointing out how a number of local bus routes serving minority and low-income communities were often locked with congestion.

“Existing federal policy and funding supports the development of mega projects like Somerville’s Assembly Row, Boston’s Seaport, and our interstate highway system, but ignores critical maintenance and expansion projects like the 111 bus to Chelsea, the 99 bus from Everett to Wellington, or the Fairmount line,” said Pressley’s campaign website.

It’s priorities like those that the new caucus is aiming to change.

Pressley notes that she is hardly the first to speak out on these issues, crediting the community of transportation advocates, particularly in Massachusetts, for its vocal activism. A recent Twitter thread by one local advocate illustrating how decades of government transportation (and housing) policy systemically disadvantaged residents in Chelsea was just one example she cited.

“There have been canaries in the coal mine for years about these issues and I think people thought it was hyperbole,” Pressley said. “But the best policies are informed by data. The numbers don’t lie. The visuals don’t lie. And they are damning.”