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Boston’s traffic congestion was recently ranked fourth worst in the world, and second worst in the United States. The average Boston driver lost $2,270 and 134 hours waiting in traffic in 2022.
But recently filed legislation is looking to reduce Massachusetts traffic, and give the commonwealth a new source of revenue.
A new bill filed in the Massachusetts House and Senate proposes the creation of a mobility pricing commission. And with support from recently-elected Gov. Maura Healey, the proposal may stand a better chance of making it through the legislature than similar prior efforts.
The commission would join several transportation parties to analyze the possible implementations and results of mobility pricing, aimed towards reducing traffic congestion in Massachusetts and raising revenue to fund transportation infrastructure.
“This bill … asks the question, ‘What can we do to better encourage people to drive less at peak hours,’” said Rep. Steven Owens, who proposed the bill in the House. “And if we think about how we are going to do this, we are going to want to bring together a wide variety of stakeholders.”
The commission would be made up of 17 members — including the secretary of transportation and the CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce — and would “investigate, study and make recommendations on the development and deployment of comprehensive and regionally equitable public transportation pricing, roadway pricing and congestion pricing.”
“People are already spending $2,270 in their current commute,” Owens said. “Reducing that number is going to help people.”
The commission would focus on policies that disincentive car usage such as congestion pricing, and increase accessibility to public transportation through adjusting fare pricing, and potentially incorporating flat rate fares and fair capping— a policy similar to a deductible that caps total fare costs at a certain amount.
“We need to put the incentives in the right place … because if we’re saying we want people to drive less and use public transit more, right now, the current incentives are to drive more,” Pete Wilson, a senior policy advisor at Transportation for Massachusetts, told Boston.com.
The commission will investigate several possible ways to reduce congestion in the commonwealth, one of them being congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing, at its simplest, aims to discourage car usage by installing tolls in heavily congested areas, increasing the price of tolling fees during times of high congestion, and decreasing them during times of low congestion. By charging higher fees for drivers during congested traffic and lower fees during free-flowing traffic, congestion pricing looks to encourage drivers to either take public transit or drive at different times.
“Really the goal of this is to try to figure out not how we can stop people from getting into the city, but how we can incentivize them to use our limited infrastructure in ways that spread out the traffic [more equability] in terms of people per mile,” Owens said.
Congestion pricing can come in several different forms, including increasing toll fees when entering or driving within a congested area, or dynamically pricing lanes, which entails charging for the use of specific lanes, while keeping other lanes free. Some iterations also charge drivers more for using certain types of cars, how many miles they drive, or for using ride sharing platforms.
The approach, in its many variations, has shown reduced traffic and car emissions in several major cities including Seattle, London, Singapore, Stockholm, and Portland, Oregon. And the commission would look at which methods work specifically for Massachusetts.
“We [need to be] looking at what people are using in other cities and towns, in other states or municipalities [to reduce traffic congestion],” Wilson said. “Because [it] leads to people leaving the state because it’s a quality of life issue, and businesses not wanting to locate here because their workers can’t get to and from work on time.”
In addition to decreasing congestion, the commission would also look for ways to best fund transportation infrastructure in the future.
Revenue generated from mobility pricing would help pay for transportation infrastructure, making up for losses as electrical vehicles syphon off yields from Massachusetts gas taxes. The commonwealth aims to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, and legislators worry that the state will not be able to make up the lost motor fuel revenue, which netted $722 million in FY 2022.
“We need a more reliable revenue for transportation,” said Massachusetts state Sen. Brendan Crighton, who filed the bill in the Senate. “The gas tax isn’t generating the revenue we need.”
Crighton told Boston.com that the proposed commission will look for ways to fund ailing MBTA and RTA infrastructure, as well as fix bridges, sidewalks, and roads.
“We don’t have a plan for how we’re going to pay for the maintenance, upkeep, even investment in roads, bridges and transit,” Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Rooney told the Boston Herald. The chamber backed the bill, citing similar wariness over the commonwealth’s ability to fund transportation in the future.
“The proposal is to face the realities that it’s inequitable. It’s not sustainable.”
There are concerns — often cited by former Mass. Governor Charlie Baker, who rejected congestion pricing proposals — that the policies suggested by the commission might end up hurting commuters without schedule flexibility. Increased tolling fees could inadvertently target workers whose strict schedules force them to leave during rush hour.
According to a 2019 congestion report to the governor, Massachusetts already has one of the lowest per-mile tolling for in-state residents. Because of this, the commonwealth has little room to discount non-congested tolling fees, and would need to spike congested rates to substantially dissuade commuters from taking the roads.
Rep. Owens did point out that decreasing congestion could save drivers money in the long run, though. As congestion pricing aims to reduce traffic, the $2,270 that drivers lost last year could be reduced as the policy is implemented. Additionally, the commission would specifically look at implementations of equitable congestion pricing that mitigate harm to low-income communities.
The report also pointed out that Massachusetts currently lacks the tolling infrastructure in the right spots to integrate functioning congestion pricing.
“There is almost no overlap between current gantry locations and where the commonwealth’s most severe congestion occurs; gantries are located where they are due to history and revenue-raising needs,” the report said. “And current law limits MassDOT’s abilities to put up additional gantries.”
It is unclear exactly how the legislature would go about addressing these concerns, but according to Owens, finding out is the purpose of the commission.
Moving forward, the bill will be referred to committees in both chambers, such as the Transportation Committee in the Senate, Crighton said. While it’s unclear when exactly the bill will be voted on, it will likely be in the coming months, as the Massachusetts budget is due in July.
The filed legislation would give the commission until July 1, 2025 to report their findings, but it is tough to say how quickly they could be implemented. Transportation policy often takes longer to implement than other types, Wilson said, but the commission is an important first step.
“If we want to look forward, if we want to talk about economic development … quality of life … emissions from transportation, building more equity and being intentional about building an equitable system when it comes to public transit and driving on roads and bridges, etc., then this needs to be looked at in a deep and thoughtful way,” Wilson said.
Proposals like this are not uncommon in the Massachusetts legislature, but with Gov. Healey — who, unlike her predecessor, has shown support for congestion pricing — the bill has a chance to make it past the executive.
“I support a real look at [congestion pricing], whether it’s a pilot or something else,” Healey during a recent interview on GBH News’s “Ask the Governor” segment on Boston Public Radio. “If we want to get people out of cars and we want people to come back into the city, they need to have a reason to do that and they need to have … a transit system that works.”
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