The Transportation Dividend


The situation was not acceptable,” Governor Charlie Baker said in late February when a Red Line derailment that stranded thousands of passengers seemed to put the cherry on top of a season of signal problems, disabled cars and aggravating delays on Greater Boston’s public transit system.

Unacceptable as the current state may be, our region is in a better position than most regarding public transportation. At a February forum at the Boston Foundation, a report by A Better City on the state and future of our public transit systems was presented and discussed by a panel of stakeholders and influencers. The report was co-sponsored by the Barr Foundation.


Return yielded by public transit every year — five times greater than our investment 

Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan opened the event observing, “Despite its well documented flaws, our region’s transit infrastructure represents a unique and highly valuable civic asset which accounts for a great deal of our region’s economic success.”

The report’s title, The Transportation Dividend, sums that up. Grogan introduced MBTA CEO Luis Manuel Ramirez, who called the T “part of the region’s cultural identity,” but insisted, “we have to do more than keep pace.” He called The Transportation Dividend “a reminder about how important our work is to the success of this region.”

We are still benefiting from investments made more than 100 years ago.

Authors Alden Raine and Toni Horst presented their findings with some key takeaways being that our current system is the result of past, future-thinking investments, which we would be wise to continue; and that it is transit that helps overcome the very high cost of doing business in Boston, making it a place that people and enterprises choose. In short, Boston’s economy is powered by transit.

The ensuing conversation flowed through the past, present and future of our system, defining our legacy, opportunities and challenges. Panelists agreed that the report should make us grateful for what we have and see the importance of preserving and improving on it. Our transportation systems clearly have gaps and weaknesses, but we are materially ahead of most other American cities. We owe this to vision and investments from more than 100 years ago, plus the luck of having a city largely built up before the hegemony of the automobile. 

Chris Dempsey, Director of Transportation for Massachusetts, offered the example of the Longfellow Bridge: “It was built at the turn of the last century, and they decided to make it wider than it needed to be because they had a feeling there would be technology that might make use of the middle. Let that legacy guide us.”


We are now at a “mobility crossroads,” where more visionary investments will be necessary to support the future economic and cultural health of the city. As author and Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter emphasized, “Maintenance is not a vision.” 

The report calls for a three-pronged investment strategy, including the elimination of the multibillion-dollar State of Good Repair backlog and enhancements to the core capacity of the rapid transit backbone and the existing corridors of the MBTA footprint. Thankfully, parties from all sides—from free-spending futurists to fiscal conservatives—are generally aiming in the same direction. The devil of course will be in the details: Which items on the menu should come first and how to prioritize the rest? (See below.) And then, how to muster the political and public will to ask for and say “yes” to paying for it. 


Most panelists were sanguine about the intelligence of the Massachusetts public in appreciating the financials that the report presented. Public transit yields a return ($11 billion) five times greater than what we invest in it ($2 billion) annually. And that return goes to everyone, transit riders and diehard car drivers alike. The benefits of having more people using public transit are enormous: less congestion on roadways and parking facilities; improved public health due to cleaner air and fewer traffic fatalities; improved environmental status from lowered carbon emissions; connectivity enabling businesses and cultural organizations to flourish; and more.

Infrastructure development may be a political football at the national level, but in the Edgerley Center during the forum, agreement abounded on the importance of not just maintaining but expanding and enhancing the region’s public transportation systems. “It is high time for Massachusetts to be aspirational again,” said Jim Canales, President and Trustee of the Barr Foundation, who facilitated the panel discussion, “and to make the smart transportation investments that link our people to opportunities, propel our economy, and preserve our climate.”

Some Recommended Enhancements

  1. Connect all of the spokes of the transit corridors
  2. Develop bus rapid transit and make all bus service more efficient
  3. Enhance the safety and ease of cycling and walking
  4. Offer on-demand or flexible-schedule services
  5. Expand the use of passenger ferries
  6. Plan for climate resilience