The 2 Democrats running to take on Charlie Baker have some big ideas to fix traffic and the MBTA

From firing the MBTA's private operator to pursuing major expansion projects, Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie are pushing a number of ambitious proposals.

Jim Braude with Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie on Greater Boston on 8.16.18 (Sam Brewer - WGBH News)2
WGBH host Jim Braude with Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie during a debate Thursday night. –Sam Brewer / WGBH News

Hoping to gain traction against Gov. Charlie Baker, the two candidates in the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary race are trying to capitalize on a perennially sticky issue.

Transportation.

From daily commuter traffic to longterm investments in the MBTA, challengers Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie have hammered the highly popular Republican governor’s leadership on transit issues.

“Our transportation system is one of the worst in the country,” Gonzalez, a former budget chief for Gov. Deval Patrick, said in a debate Thursday on WGBH’s Greater Boston.

There is certainly room for improvement. The Bay State’s transportation infrastructure was ranked 42nd out of the 50 states earlier this year, with commute times ranked 47th and the MBTA commuter rail leading the country in breakdowns in 2016. On the state’s roads, the traffic is only getting worse.

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Baker’s team says that recent reforms to the MBTA have improved the system’s reliability and balanced budgets, which he says could also help the traffic situation by incentivizing drivers to take public transportation. However, Gonzalez and Massie have more ambitious proposals that they say they would implement, if elected.

‘Fire Keolis’

Both gubernatorial candidates say they would “fire” Keolis Commuter Services, the privately contracted company that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system.

“They’ve done a terrible job and I would be the first governor to bring it in-house,” Gonzalez said Thursday.

The Baker administration says it will not seek to extend the current Keolis contract, which expires in 2022, allowing for a restructured deal or for another private company to come in. But the governor’s two challengers are taking it a step further by saying they would end the agreement with Keolis and manage the commuter rail system from within state government.

“I agree that we need to fire Keolis,” Massie said during the debate Thursday. “The fact is I suggested it before he did.”

According to a transportation policy plan released by his campaign, Massie says that the commuter rail services have become an integral feature of the state’s transportation network, unlike in 1967, when the state first outsourced operations and more freight ran on the lines.

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Massie says that taking operations out of the hands of for-profit interests and making it publicly run would increase accountability and save taxpayer money.

“We need to stop looking for who to blame, and fix how we plan, fund and manage the commuter rail operation,” says his policy plan. “The outsourcing arrangement made some sense 50 years ago. It has made a little less sense every year since then.”

Congestion pricing

Gonzalez and Massie are somewhat split on a proposal that could reduce Boston’s problematic traffic congestion. Congestion pricing uses tolls to financially incentivize people to avoid driving in high-traffic areas or during high-traffic times.

Baker recently vetoed legislation that would have tested a mild form of the policy, in which toll rates would have been decreased during non-peak drive times. The governor said the issue should first be further studied.

Asked about the subject of congestion pricing during Thursday’s debate, Gonzalez said he supports trying it.

“We’re 47th in the country when it comes to commute times,” he said. “People are stuck in traffic for way too long. We have to stop studying, which is all Charlie Baker’s wanting to do, and actually start taking action. I’m going to be a governor that is in the job to do the job.”

Massie, however, was more hesitant. The longtime progressive activist says he has concerns about the impact of higher tolls, a form of regressive tax, on low-income families with inflexible schedules.

“I am concerned about what hits the people — lower income, working families — and we’re already demanding a lot of them,” he said Thursday. “All of their expenses have gone up and their wages remain flat.”

Big ideas

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The two candidate are generally supportive of the bigger, transformative proposals that would overhaul the region’s transit system.

Both support proposals for a tunnel connecting Boston’s North and South stations, high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield, and running the South Coast Rail project through Stoughton sooner rather than later. Gonzalez also wants to see the Blue Line extended to Lynn, while Massie is calling for the MBTA to connect the Blue and Red lines and studies on the possibility of passenger rail from Western Massachusetts to Albany, New York, through a new tunnel, and even an “inner belt” rail line circling Boston.

During the debate Thursday, host Jim Braude brought up some of their more ambitious proposals and asked how the estimated billions in costs would be paid for. Both candidates have consistently expressed support for the so-called millionaire tax (which was recently blocked from getting on the 2018 ballot), which would raise a projected $1.6 to $2.2 billion in annul revenue reserved for education and transportation.

If elected, Gonzalez said he would immediately ask the Department of Revenue for options “for how we ask those doing well in the state to pay more so that we can make some of these critical investments that will make a difference in regular people’s lives.”

“I’m not going to ask lower- and middle-income people, who are already struggling to get ahead, to pay more,” he said, adding that he would also look to close certain corporate tax breaks.

Massie, who criticized Gonzalez for “vagueness,” said he wanted to work on some form of a progressive income tax and a tax on the construction of luxury apartments. He also said he would cancel the current expansion of South Station and use the billions of saved funds to finance the North-South rail link and other transportation projects. Additionally, Massie emphasized that the economic benefit of such transportation improvements would outweigh the costs in the long run.

“We know clearly that this will provide an economic boost to the entire community, and that’s a benefit that comes from investing in those costs,” he said.

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