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Promises to Keep

When it comes to visionary planning, Massachusetts still has miles to go.

“The Boston region is at a crossroads in transportation policy. Dissatisfaction with the existing transportation decision process, and with its products, is rife. And there is a widespread willingness to consider fundamental changes, [which] has been shaped by two major crises: on the one hand, the fiscal crisis of public transportation; on the other, growing resistance to the deleterious by-products of private transportation.” — The Governor's Task Force on Transportation, June 1970.

These words are now four decades old, but the sentiments are identical to those being voiced today as the Commonwealth struggles to decide whether and how to pay for billions of dollars in transportation investments needed to ensure the state’s economic prosperity, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. In 1970, the Governor’s Task Force on Transportation saw these twin crises as creating an opportunity for transformational change. Task Force members boldly and optimistically predicted that “the current transportation crises will be viewed in future years as having laid the groundwork for an era of great and genuine transportation progress.”

And they were right. The “balanced transportation” program established by the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) provided a blueprint for decades of progressive transportation policy and investment in Massachusetts — across Democratic and Republican administrations, in boom times and busts. The sticking power of the BTPR — both its big ideas and many of its specific project recommendations — is especially striking in an era when the body politic seems to suffer from collective attention deficit disorder.

Still, this vision was never fully implemented, and its legacy has not yet been realized. With Governor Deval Patrick and the legislature committed to tackling comprehensive transportation finance reform in 2013, now is a perfect time to reflect on the lessons from the past when the attention of the Commonwealth’s residents and leaders was focused on transforming transportation planning and policy — and to remind ourselves of the work that remains.

Forty years on, the time has come for the Commonwealth to fulfill three of the most important unkept promises: institutionalizing open and visionary planning, healing the scars still left in neighborhoods cleared for the cancelled highway projects, and completing and funding the state’s public transportation system.

Reinventing Planning

In his February 1970 speech announcing the decision to impose a moratorium on new highway construction, Governor Francis Sargent promised that “for the first time, a metropolitan transportation plan will be developed that is free of outdated ideas and obsolete myths.” The BTPR delivered on that promise, relying on a creative new approach dubbed “open planning,” designed to collect perspectives from a broad range of what we would now call stakeholders and generate and evaluate a broad range of alternatives.

It was a radical redefinition of city planning, one that recognized that local neighbors often have the best understanding of the issues in their own communities. This new planning process encouraged participants to put their own ideas on the table and provided the technical resources to seriously evaluate a broad range of nontraditional alternatives, many of which proved worthier than the ideas that had long populated highway and transit plans for Greater Boston.

Sadly, such open planning was not institutionalized in Massachusetts nor replicated elsewhere. Some elements, such as broad stakeholder involvement, have become commonplace. But transportation planning in Massachusetts today is too often an exercise in deciding how best to allocate the pittance available for new projects. Indeed, investing in open-ended “blue sky” regional transportation planning is seen as a wasteful luxury. The BTPR should have taught us that the financial resources to implement ambitious transportation plans ultimately emerge from inclusive, visionary planning that helps to build the political will to make transformative transportation investments.

Healing the Scars

Arguably the most important focus of the Boston Transportation Planning Review was not “planning” or even “transportation” but “Boston.” The highway plan that was roundly rejected was an outgrowth of the notion, embodied by the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, that cities were obsolete and would soon be dominated by huge freeways. Indeed, renderings of the Southwest Expressway/Inner Belt interchange planned for Jamaica Plain look startlingly like some of the Futurama infrastructure. The decision to stop the highway and focus on transit investment was as much a vote of confidence in the future of urbanism and of Boston — and Brookline and Cambridge and Somerville — as it was a transportation decision. If the highway plan had been implemented, today’s thriving urban core would not exist.

Unfortunately, however, the decision to stop the highway came too late for some neighborhoods. More than 90 percent of the Southwest Corridor in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, where Interstate 695 would have connected to the Inner Belt, was cleared before the highway was halted, leaving more than 150 acres of vacant land between Forest Hills and Madison Park. Although some of that land was redeveloped for the Orange Line and Southwest Corridor Park, too many parcels remain vacant four decades later, despite repeated attempts to secure viable development.

Boston’s Melnea Cass Boulevard, constructed as part of the Southwest Corridor development plan, is currently undergoing a comprehensive rethinking, since its current incarnation involves far too much street and anchors far too little economic development.

At the other end of the canceled highway system, in Somerville, the underused Inner Belt Industrial Park harks back to the highway that was never built; the city of Somerville’s recent SomerVision plan designates the area as a transformational zone where the hoped-for extension of the Green Line could at last spur redevelopment. The work of the BTPR will not truly be finished until the neighborhoods “saved” by the highway cancellation are restored and thriving once again.

Revitalizing the Transit System

More than just a rejection of highways, the BTPR represented an embrace of transit as the key to mobility and prosperity for metropolitan Boston, at a time when many saw buses and subways as an irrelevant relic of an earlier era. Sargent understood that the Boston area’s extensive rapid-transit and commuter-rail network was “in large part responsible for the economic and cultural vitality of the metropolis.” He rejected the highway plan in part because it would “destroy the financial viability of the transit system” and cause “great harm to those groups in the population that are most dependent on transit for their mobility — the elderly, the low income, the handicapped, and the young."

The BTPR generated a host of new ideas for transit projects that were enthusiastically embraced by Sargent and later Governor Michael Dukakis: relocating the Orange Line into the Southwest Corridor, extending the Red Line to Alewife, and investing heavily in the ailing commuter-rail system. Other proposed projects — replacement transit service for the Washington Street corridor previously served by the elevated Orange Line, and extension of the Green Line to Somerville — remain works in progress. And others — extension of the Blue Line to Lynn and creation of a “circumferential” transit line later dubbed the Urban Ring — have fallen by the wayside. Today, Greater Boston still lacks critical pieces of the “vital transit system” envisioned by the planning review.

Even more disappointing than the stalled projects is the failure to act on the BTPR’s admonition that the regional transit system had been “permitted to deteriorate — physically, financially, and institutionally.” The report pointed to the need to modernize stations, replace rolling stock, and build new maintenance facilities, all still needing attention today. Despite “forward funding” legislation enacted in 2000 that allocated a portion of the state sales tax to the MBTA, Secretary Alan Altshuler’s 1973 characterization of the state’s system for financing transit remains valid: We have a “self-defeating tax structure for the support of transit in the Boston region, combined with total inattention to the problem of transit survival in the Commonwealth’s other urban regions.” Both the MBTA and the regional-transit authorities born out of the BTPR need hundreds of millions of additional dollars annually for expanded operation, maintaining aging systems, and expanding to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.

Public transportation remains central to regional plans for economic prosperity, thriving urban neighborhoods, and sustainable transportation choices. Yet we have continued to allow our public transportation systems “to deteriorate — physically, financially, and institutionally.” The real legacy of this 40-year-old struggle will be secure only when a sustainable financing system is in place for the MBTA and for regional-transit systems across Massachusetts.

Today the Commonwealth again has difficult choices to make about the future of its transportation systems. The region is well overdue for a 21st-century version of the Boston Transportation Planning Review — one that engages residents, stimulates our collective imagination, and generates both exciting new ideas and the political will to invest in them over the next four decades.