Massachusetts prepping for brave new transportation world

Mass. Gov Charlie Baker speaks after he toured a new factory where the Chinese company CRRC will build new MBTA cars for the Red and Orange lines, in Springfield, MA on Thursday, October 12, 2017.
Mass. Gov Charlie Baker speaks after he toured a new factory where the Chinese company CRRC will build new MBTA cars for the Red and Orange lines, in Springfield, MA on Thursday, October 12, 2017. –Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

BOSTON (AP) — Ready or not, Massachusetts is speeding headlong into a brave new transportation world.

It may not include flying cars, but state leaders are looking to help pave the way for self-driving cars, an all-electric car future, a transportation grid resilient to climate change, and a planned “reinvention” of the commuter rail system serving metropolitan Boston.

Among the recommendations laid out in a hefty, two-volume report released this month by a state commission on the future of transportation in Massachusetts is for the state to set a goal “that all new cars, light duty trucks, and buses sold in Massachusetts will be electric by 2040.”

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It’s part of a wider blueprint to create what the commission called “a 21st century mobility infrastructure” that will help the state and its cities and towns both manage and make the most of emerging changes in transportation technology and behavior.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed the executive order creating the commission, charging it with providing his administration an analysis of the different transportation challenges facing the state in the coming decades.

“We knew this wouldn’t be an easy task,” Baker said. “The next 20 years in transportation are going to look very different than the last 20 years.”

The areas Baker asked the commission to study included the impact of climate change, the electrification of transportation, and the rise both of autonomous (self-driving) cars and ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

One of the commission’s recommendations is that the state work toward building an “ubiquitous electric charging” infrastructure for electric cars.

Some of the changes — like the advent of the ride-hailing industry — are already transforming how people move around, particularly in cities, while other technology — like self-driving cars — is still just around the corner.

While many of the tasks ahead are focused on urban areas, the report also cites the need to provide better transportation options in rural communities.

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Steve Kadish, the head of the commission, said the panel’s main task was to look ahead, not to get bogged down in short-term budget proposals or specific projects.

“The commission’s report is a look at 2040,” Kadish said. “It’s a presentation of plausible scenarios; it’s not about predicting the future.”

The report drew applause from some environmental groups.

The Massachusetts Sierra Club praised Baker for pressing for the report, saying in a news release that “a well-functioning, clean transportation system for all will increase equitable access to jobs, groceries, and economic centers while improving our air quality and reducing climate emissions.”

Baker said his administration will review the recommendation and look for ways state agencies can begin to work toward the goals. An overarching aim, he said, is to find ways to make it easier for people to move around the state while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Baker struggled during his first term to rebuild the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s aging subway and bus system and help ensure that commuter rail services run on time, even during the tough winter months.

Critics — including his Democratic challenger, Jay Gonzalez, during this year’s race for governor — have faulted Baker for not pushing ahead hard enough to solve MBTA’s troubles. Critics also warned that the failure to improve transportation — both roads and bridges and public transit — could hamper the state’s booming economic growth.

The report’s release comes amid a struggle to deal with the MBTA’s ongoing woes.

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The administration this month announced that the MBTA’s general manager was leaving after just 15 months.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said MBTA General Manager Luis Ramirez would be replaced by Steve Poftak, the current vice chairman of the MBTA’s fiscal control board.

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