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New report highlights need for renewed investment in public transit systems

Research connects public transit and economic growth of Greater Boston, finds transit investments are critical to future growth

Boston – Investments in Greater Boston’s legacy public transit system remain the best option for the continued growth of the Greater Boston economy, according to a new report released this morning at the Boston Foundation. The report, The Transportation Dividend: Transit Investments and the Massachusetts Economy, takes a look at the economic benefits and value of the current Greater Boston transit system, and lays out a three-part proposal for investments in the 20 “inner core” communities and regional transit spokes that can further enhance the Massachusetts economy.

Researchers from the nationally-respected firm AECOM prepared the report, which was managed by A Better City and supported by funding from the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation. The report team found that the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority provides an estimated $11.4 billion in value to Greater Boston – each year - in travel time savings, travel cost savings, crashes avoided, and reduced vehicular emissions, on an operating budget of just over $2 billion. That works out to an estimated $6700 per household gain in Metropolitan Boston.

In addition, the research finds the very existence of the MBTA means that the Commonwealth and its people have avoided, over time, the capital cost of nearly 2,300 additional lane miles of roads and 400,000 parking spaces that would have been needed without the transit system. If it had to be built today, that additional vehicular infrastructure would cost an estimated $15 billion or more.

Despite its measurable value, however, the research highlights a need for significant investments to maintain, enhance, and expand operations within the current footprint.

“Once the envy of the nation for its transportation system, Massachusetts’ recently ranked 45th among all states by U.S. News and World Report,” noted Jim Canales, President and Trustee of the Barr Foundation. “It is high time for Massachusetts to be aspirational again, and to make the smart transportation investments that link our people to opportunities, that propel our economy, and that preserve our climate.”

“There is no quick, cheap fix,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “But there are necessary ones. Improving our transit infrastructure is absolutely critical to the continuation of our city and region as a robust and powerful player in the global economy, as a leader in education, health care and technology. An affordable, accessible mass transit system makes it possible for more of our residents to live, work and thrive in Greater Boston.”

A hub and spoke system, driving the dividend

The report team takes a “hub and spoke” view of transit, with rail and other transit lines connecting the 164 communities of Metropolitan Boston with a 20-community “inner core” that already contains 37% of the metropolitan population, 44% of its jobs and an even higher percentage of healthcare, education and financial services jobs. The spokes of the system serve “Gateway Cities” or regional centers that not only provide part of the inner core’s workforce, but in many cases are growing destinations in their own right, and benefit from outbound transit connections from the core. 

Within the system, the report highlights 24 “transit growth centers,” in six corridors, that have the development capacity and labor market capacity to serve as focal points for current and future economic investments. (They are shown on the attached map).

“The business community has long held the notion that the MBTA is a cornerstone of the region’s and state’s economy. This analysis of the T’s economic impact provides clear evidence to support that notion, said Rick Dimino, President of A Better City. “The good news is the economy, demographics, and productivity of the region are barreling forward. The bad news: the transit system is not keeping pace.”

Needed investments to support economic growth

The report recommends a three-pronged investment strategy. First, it calls for the elimination of the multibillion-dollar State of Good Repair backlog, which would not only protect the current benefits of the system, but also would produce more than $400 million in additional benefits each year.

In addition, the report calls for new enhancements to the “core capacity of the rapid transit backbone,” along the lines of the MBTA’s current efforts to modernize the Red and Orange Line fleets and other systems. The report highlights needed modernization on the Green Line and capacity enhancements on the Silver Line Waterfront service as targets.

Third, the report explores the critical need for service enhancements along the existing (or planned, in the case of the Green Line Extension) corridors of the MBTA footprint. These investments would make the MBTA’s existing footprint nimbler, more interconnected, more responsive to demonstrated need, and more attractive to businesses deciding where to invest and households deciding where to live. These enhancements would include:

  • The creation of new “infill” stations linked directly to transit-oriented development. These investments define their Transit Growth Clusters and lend themselves to public-private partnerships, as demonstrated at Assembly Square, Boston Landing, and Yawkey Way and as envisioned at Quincy Center, Allston Landing, the Lynn River Works, Wonderland, and potentially the Malden River, the Everett Waterfront, and Alewife.
  • A reimagined commuter rail system providing two complementary types of service - Urban Rail would use shorter, more nimble “multiple unit” trains to provide frequent, rapid transit-like service on corridors within the Inner Core. Regional Rail would provide enhanced peak and reverse peak service to outlying cities and towns.
  • The use of versatile bus rapid transit, especially to complement rapid transit service and connect underserved transit growth clusters.
  • Expanded use of passenger ferries as an integral part of the transit network for the Seaport, Downtown, East Boston, the Everett Waterfront, the Lynn Waterfront, and other Boston Harbor, North Shore, and South Shore locations.

The appeal of ready access to the current mass transit footprint is demonstrated in the economics of development within a half-mile of transit and commuter rail stations. The 5% of Greater Boston’s land area within one half-mile of a station contains at least 25% of the region’s households and 37% of the region’s jobs. Adding bus routes to the equation strengthens the relationship between transit and jobs.

MBTA riders make an estimated 1.3 million weekday trips on the system.

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The Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts. Based in Boston, Barr focuses regionally, and selectively engages nationally, working in partnership with nonprofits, foundations, the public sector, and civic and business leaders to elevate the arts, advance solutions for climate change, and connect all students to success in high school and beyond. Founded in 1997, Barr now has assets of $1.7 billion, and has contributed more than $838 million to charitable causes. For more information, visit barrfoundation.org.

The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, brings people and resources together to solve Boston’s big problems. Established in 1915, it is one of the largest community foundations in the nation—with net assets of $1.1 billion.  In 2017, the Foundation and its donors paid $135 million in grants to nonprofit organizations. The Foundation is a close partner in philanthropy with its donors, with more than 1,000 separate charitable funds established for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. It also serves as a major civic leader, think tank, and advocacy organization, commissioning research into the most critical issues of our time and helping to shape public policy designed to advance opportunity for everyone in Greater Boston.  The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), a distinct operating unit of the Foundation, designs and implements customized philanthropic strategies for families, foundations, and corporations around the globe. For more information about the Boston Foundation and TPI, visit tbf.org or call 617-338-1700.

A Better City is a diverse group of business leaders united around a common goal—to enhance Boston and the region’s economic health, competitiveness, vibrancy, sustainability, and quality of life. By amplifying the voice of the business community through collaboration and consensus across a broad range of stakeholders, A Better City develops solutions and influences policy in three critical areas central to the Boston region’s economic competitiveness and growth: transportation & infrastructure, land use & development, and energy & environment. Learn more at abettercity.org.