Boston Globe | By The Editorial Board | February 16, 2021
Just because every day seems like Groundhog Day, because most of our lives seem stuck in a pandemic-generated limbo, is no reason not to plan for the future — to think ahead. That’s what leaders are supposed to do.
Last week, the state Senate took a step in that direction, setting up its first-ever Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts to, as Senate President Karen Spilka put it, focus “on tomorrow and the next day” in our post-pandemic world.
In that spirit, there are a couple items of unfinished business — fee hikes on ride-hailing services and an independent commission to examine the broader issue of congestion pricing — that are critical to the future of commuting in this state and merit speedy consideration this year.
It’s not that lawmakers didn’t try. Both items were part of a broader transportation bond bill passed at the end of the last session. But when it comes to planning for that post-pandemic world, Governor Charlie Baker remains stuck in neutral. He may be able to envision such long-term items as South Coast Rail, but it seems he cannot imagine what the streets of Boston will look like, say, by September or a year from now.Get Today in Opinion in your inboxGlobe Opinion’s must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.Enter EmailSign Up
In fact, in his letter vetoing the increases in fees on Uber and Lyft riders, Baker insisted the proposal “created a complicated fee structure that is based on pre-pandemic assumptions.”
“Before instituting fees that are aimed at incentivizing certain travel behaviors, we need to understand what ridership and congestion patterns are going to look like after the pandemic,” he added.
While the pandemic has indeed changed what’s happening on the roads for now, it’s not an excuse for Massachusetts to wait.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which had urged Baker not to veto the fee hike last month, and now the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, found no merit in the state playing a waiting game.
The proposed fee structure is hardly complicated. The current 20-cent flat fee per ride would be raised to 40 cents for a shared ride, $1.20 for a non-shared ride, and $2.20 for a luxury ride. Baker himself had proposed a flat $1 per ride fee in his pre-pandemic budget.
Maybe few folks would opt for that bargain-rate pooled-ride today — but in September or a year from September, that may not be the case, and the state should be positioned to take in revenue from it.
The MAPC estimated that even if ridership on networks such as Uber and Lyft remained at half their pre-pandemic levels (91.1 million trips in 2019), the measure would bring in $56.2 million a year. A full recovery would mean $112.4 million — $26 million of that for municipalities in which the ride originates, about $11.8 million for regional transit authorities, and the rest to the state for transportation needs, including the MBTA.
In a letter to Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano, Chamber of Commerce president Jim Rooney noted, “While commuting patterns will change to a degree, TNCs [transportation network companies] will continue to draw riders away from public transit and contribute to congestion, especially in urban areas. The state should incentivize shared transportation.” And, he added, the surcharge on luxury rides “introduces a greater degree of equity.”
Rooney cited some of the state’s own numbers to counter the governor’s wait-and-see approach, writing that Massachusetts’ average weekday vehicle miles traveled in September were down only 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, but MBTA trips were down 70 percent.
“Rather than waiting to see how these patterns change once the vaccine is distributed, the state should be thinking about ways to address congestion now,” Rooney wrote.
That would mean resurrecting the idea of a special Congestion Pricing Commission, also vetoed by Baker in the transportation bond bill, who insisted, “It is too soon to make valid projections about traffic and congestion.”
The governor’s words betray short-sightedness. If business and community leaders and transportation experts aren’t brought to the table now to discuss the road ahead, when would be a good time to start? When the roads are once again jammed and people are grumbling about their nightmare commutes?
The time to start planning is now. The time to start putting smart, structured fees on ride-hailing services is now. Looking ahead even during a pandemic isn’t a crime — it’s what leaders do. Legislators should get that even if Baker doesn’t.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.