We’re speaking with Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), about the “us or them” mentality that often pervades transport funding, and the efforts is making to build connections across the entire state, including out to western Mass and even to Berkshire County, which we sometimes call western western Mass.
In this podcast, Dempsey highlights legislation that can help communities across the state support one another. The conversation ranged from federal funding, state funding for regional transit authorities including the Chapter 90 Program, which provides money to every single city in town on an annual basis, and the need for a higher gas tax in Massachusetts, recognizing that this needs to be implemented with equity issues in mind. And of course we discussed the importance of connecting rural communities to one another and to larger metropolitan areas. Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) is a diverse coalition of more than 90 member and partner organizations with a stake in improving transportation across the Commonwealth. The Train Campaign is a member, as is the Western Mass Rail Coalition we helped to found.
The coalition’s Director, Chris was formerly Assistant Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth. In that role, he co-founded the MBTA’s open-data program, which was named Innovation of the Year by WTS-Massachusetts in 2010. Chris has also worked as a consultant at Bain & Co., on a number of local and statewide political campaigns including that of Congressman Joe Kennedy III, and at a transportation technology startup that provides mobile ticketing for transit systems in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Chris is a graduate of Pomona College (B.A , 2005) and Harvard Business School (M.B.A, 2012). Chris has taught transportation policy at the graduate level at Northeastern University. In 2015, Chris was named Bostonian of the Year by the Boston Globe Magazine for his volunteer work leading No Boston Olympics.
Visit https://www.t4ma.org/ to learn more.
Train Time is hosted by Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign and Chief Executive Officer of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. She was senior editor of the Encyclopedia of Community (SAGE), and is a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania Press and an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. She founded the Train Campaign in 2011 as a project of Barrington Institute, sister nonprofit to Berkshire Publishing Group.
This text has been lightly edited. Recorded on Wed, 9/30/2020 • 22:19 minutes.
Karen Christensen 00:01
Chris, it’s great to be with you today.
Chris Dempsey 00:04
Karen, wonderful to be with you. Thanks so much for the invitation.
Karen Christensen 00:07
Now, where exactly are you right now.
Chris Dempsey 00:10
So I am sitting in Hull, Massachusetts, right at the border with Cohasset. About as far away from Great Barrington as you can be, but still being in Massachusetts. So I’m lucky to be looking at the Atlantic Ocean right now. But normally, I would be talking to you either from our offices in Boston, or from my home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Karen Christensen 00:35
Well, as you know, we have often talked about some of the challenges that face rural Massachusetts, and really the sense that people in rural areas–not just here, but across the United States–they feel cut off, they feel ignored.
And so often when either politicians, or even organizations like yours, Transportation for Massachusetts, talk about policy solutions for transportation, it seems very much focused on cities and on urban commuters. But I know that you keep a much broader perspective on this. And so what I want to focus on today is your ideas about how we connect Massachusetts, and connect the people of a state like ours that has urban areas and rural areas.
Chris Dempsey 01:35
That’s great, and I’m looking forward to that conversation. And I should start by just being clear with folks that Transportation for Massachusetts is a coalition made up of other organizations around the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that have a stake in making transportation work better. And we’re really proud that we have members like the Western Mass Rail Coalition, and that’s how we’ve gotten to know you, Karen, as well as groups like the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, or the Berkshire Community Action Council, which represent Western Massachusetts and rural parts of the state.
We are very attuned to the fact that folks in Western Massachusetts often feel left out of the conversation. And I will admit that we do not always get it right. And we rely on folks like you to help keep us honest, and keep us focused. So thank you for always pushing us, and my commitment to you and your team is that we’re always going to be there to listen.
Karen Christensen 02:33
That’s terrific. So let’s talk about some of the specific challenges and some of the solutions that you’re proposing because one of the things I’ve so enjoyed about watching the work of T4MA is that you always have this long list of solutions that you want people to adopt. And obviously, these are things that then you and the coalition push. Some of them are successful, some aren’t, and there’s a long-term view.
But tell us about the certain things that have come up that have to do with the challenges that we face out here–and I do want to make sure we leave time to talk about how the East-West train service that is being proposed and discussed right now will make the people of the east, of Boston, and people in other parts of the state actually more interdependent.
So we’ll get to that later. But we’ve specifically talked about the challenge of roads and bridges and funding repairs for those.
Chris Dempsey 03:43
Yeah, so let’s start with some basic context. I like to start here, and I think this is especially relevant because your audience is not just in Massachusetts, but really around the country. So a few years ago, US News and World Report, the magazine, started ranking states. You know they’ve always ranked universities and hospitals, and they’ve finally started ranking states. And they named Massachusetts the number one state in the entire country. And that was largely due to the fact that we were number one in the entire country in education, and number two in the entire country in healthcare, representing our great public school system and our universities and our excellent hospitals and healthcare institutions. But we were number 45 in the country when it came to transportation.
We have old bridges and potholed roads and transit systems that are not serving people, whether they’re in Berkshire County or whether they’re in Boston. We’ve got sidewalks that are falling apart or don’t even exist in many parts of the state. And so we’ve got this wonderfully talented and diverse workforce that can go solve all sorts of problems that the world might have, but we make it so difficult for that workforce to actually get to work or get to the grocery store or to the hospital or wherever it is that they’re trying to go.
And there’s a silver lining there, of course, which is that there’s a lot of low hanging fruit in Massachusetts transportation. There’s a lot that has not been focused on properly, that has not been given the right care and attention over the last 20 or 30 years. And so there are a number of ideas that states have already adopted elsewhere in the country that we think Massachusetts should be adopting, as well as places where Massachusetts should be a leader and should break new ground as it has so often done over the course of its history.
So let’s talk about the challenges in rural communities. And of course, again, you know this better than I do from a personal perspective, but what I hear, when I visit communities across the state, is that for most people that are in rural communities, the main way they can get around is by getting a single occupancy vehicle because we just have not provided them with very good options to do otherwise. They live in communities that don’t have sidewalks, and so they’re not necessarily comfortable walking. They don’t have bike lanes, or they’re on windy, rural roads, and they don’t want to risk their health and their safety on a bicycle. And their transit service is probably totally non-existent. Or if it does exist, it’s built around maybe a nine to five, Monday through Friday schedule, which doesn’t allow you to get to a friend’s house on the weekend, or to church or to the grocery store. And so it’s not really a reliable option for you, and it’s sort of only something you use if you don’t have access to a vehicle.
And so we’re forcing people to only have that option of getting in a car. And that’s of course, the right choice for people given the incentives and the infrastructure that we built for them, but we could really do so much more. Even when you have communities that are not that dense and are pretty rural, many of them still have a town center, or a village, or a green, where there’s a center of activity–civic activity, commercial activity, artistic activity–and taking those areas and saying “Let’s make them more walkable and bikeable”, so that people can stop and do one trip, or they can spend half a day there because they they feel like it’s it’s worth it to come down and bike around and then head back out later in the day. So much more we could be doing in communities like that. And we have a number of tools that we haven’t really used or deployed to appropriately, I think, fund those programs and support the needs of those neighborhoods in those communities.
Karen Christensen 07:30
Mhm. And now, of course, there’s a great deal of attention on transportation as one of the building blocks of really restoring our economy after the crisis of this year. And there are a lot of different things on the table. So what would you propose? What do you think will be the key drivers for rural communities in terms of both recovering from this crisis, but also really preparing for a more vibrant and sustainable future?
Chris Dempsey 08:09
Yeah, I hope that we can build back stronger than we’ve been in the past, and I think this could provide an opportunity to do that. You know, one thing at a very simple level that we do is we advocate for more resources from the federal government. You’ve got a strong representative in Chairman Neal with the House Ways and Means Committee, who is able to bring back resources to Western Massachusetts. And I think you’ve seen that in things like the CARES Act, which passed in March in response to the pandemic, which really provided a financial shot in the arm to the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to serve their residents and their riders in the places that they serve.
But then it’s not just the federal piece, of course, it’s also the state piece. We are advocating for more robust funding at the state level for regional transit authorities. We are always advocating for what’s called the Chapter 90 Program, which is a program that provides money to every single city in town on an annual basis in Massachusetts. Every single city and town receives some funding from that program every year. And so we want that to be robust, and those dollars can be spent in a pretty broad way by those cities and towns, but they have to be spent on transportation. So they’re typically used for repair and maintenance of local roads and bridges.
And then I also think there’s a really interesting conversation around how do we connect rural communities together and how do we connect them to larger metropolitan areas? And that’s something that the Western Mass Rail Coalition has been such a great leader on. And I know you’ve had Senator Lesser–Eric lesser–from the Springfield area on your podcast before, he’s been a terrific leader on this. We have places where the corridor already exists, often because it historically provided rail service between communities. And with relatively small investments, you’re not doing any new tunneling here, you’re not necessarily even building bridges, in some cases, you’re just restoring the rail, and maybe rehabbing or refurbishing stations. For relatively small dollars, you can provide a transformational service where, all of a sudden, getting to New York City can be done without having to get in your car first, or having to head to Springfield or Hartford first. So those, I think, are really interesting opportunities. And we love the conversations that are happening there and want to find more ways to make sure they feel real to people, and not just like a vision and a dream, but actually something that’s happening.
Karen Christensen 10:52
Now, Chris, you’ve talked to me about some funding proposals that would keep the money in the communities that the money comes from. One of the issues out here has long been–this is raised by some of the Berkshire delegation now and again–is that we send sales tax to fund the MBTA.
Chris Dempsey 11:18
Yep. And, you know what, Karen? I think that’s a really fair criticism. And I represent a coalition that advocates strongly for more funding for the MBTA. But I think it is totally reasonable for people who do not use the MBTA on a daily basis–and especially people who live in communities where they’re still 100 miles away from the closest MBTA station–to say, “Wait a minute, why are we paying a sales tax every time we go to the corner store that’s funding folks in Boston to take transit?” I don’t have a short-term answer on that, but I think the longer-term answer is to allow local regions to have more flexibility and tools to raise money that they can reinvest back in their transportation system.
One example of that would be that we’re strong supporters of the idea of doing more tolling on the congested roads in Boston as a way to reduce congestion in Boston, but also then to generate revenue that can be invested in the T and to maybe over a 10- or 20-year period start to wean the MBTA off of that sales tax and find more local sources of revenue for it. But in a place like Berkshire County, where you don’t have the same traffic issues that they might have in Boston, there’s another really important tool here, and that’s called regional ballot initiatives.
There are over 30 states around the country that allow local communities to put a question on a local ballot to say: “Do you want to raise revenue from a particular source?” Maybe it’s the property tax, maybe it’s a local sales tax, maybe it’s the auto excise tax, and have the dollars dedicated to a particular project in that community. And what that means is those dollars don’t flow into Beacon Hill and get filtered around and then you feel like you’re putting $1 in and you’re getting 80 cents back. Every single dollar that you raise from that tax goes to the project that those voters voted for. And you can really see the benefits of those dollars in your community rather than, kind of, scratching your head and wondering where the money went.
Karen Christensen 13:24
And is that used very much for transportation?
Chris Dempsey 13:28
Well, all around the country it is, and we just don’t have that tool in Massachusetts. So it’s used in, most recently for example, Cincinnati, Ohio, passed a ballot initiative to better fund their bus service. You see it lots of times for more rural communities that want to do either Rails-to-Trails or they want to restore rail service in their community. Where, again, you’re talking about projects that are in the tens of millions of dollars, not the hundreds of millions of dollars, but where they can say, “We now have the ability to fund that project ourselves, and we don’t have to wait for Beacon Hill to agree to it for it to happen.” And so what we fight for at T4Mass is we fight for the legislature to pass the concept of regional ballot initiatives to provide local communities with that ability, and then it would be up to the local communities to decide if they wanted to pursue a particular transportation initiative in their area.
Karen Christensen 14:24
Well, that could be extremely meaningful here. I can see that, for sure. Let’s talk about the bridges. You and I have talked about it. We started by talking about it, I think it was when the Division Street Bridge closed and Taft Farms, which is a much loved local institution–a farm store–lost business, something like 70% of their business because it became so inconvenient to get there. But obviously there’s all sorts of other effects, and now that’s the second of the bridges in Great Barrington that’s closed now, with no clear date for reopening. So what can we do about that? What policy changes would make a difference?
Chris Dempsey 15:15
Yeah, so this is obviously something you see around the state. But I think it’s particularly true in rural communities, especially places that grew up in and around their rivers. I mean, the river was the lifeblood of the community. And so because you got a lot of water, you’ve got a lot of bridges that have to go over that water. And people have really constructed their lives and their businesses around that.
So there’s a couple of different answers to that question. At the end of the day, bridges can be pretty expensive projects. And so we need to be properly funding our transportation system to get those projects done. Most of the bridges in Massachusetts are owned and controlled by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, itself. And they have a bridge program that they undertake every year. It’s traditionally been underfunded. And I think it’s still underfunded, and we’d like to see more resources go to what’s called the Statewide Road and Bridge Program. But there are also smaller bridges, they tend to be, not major highway bridges, but more local road bridges that are owned and controlled by municipalities. And oftentimes, you’ll have a 20-, or 50-, or hundred million dollar repair on a bridge, which is a lot for the taxpayers of any particular community to bear. And so, more recently, the Baker administration has been pushing something they call the Small Bridge Program that provides direct funding to municipalities to fix and repair some of these bridges. Again, those problems come back to “Do we have enough revenue coming into the system to actually make these repairs?” And this is where we get to some tough conversations around things like the Gas Tax.
Karen Christensen 16:57
I wanted to talk about the Gas Tax, which can be especially controversial in a rural area because people are dependent on cars.
Chris Dempsey 17:05
Totally understood. And it gets back to that earlier conversation where that’s really people’s only option is to get in a car. So we have to be thoughtful about that, and I don’t think we can push the Gas Tax on anybody. But what we can do is try to have a fact-based conversation about the reality of our Gas Tax in Massachusetts.
So the Massachusetts Gas Tax is currently 33rd in the entire country. We just got passed by Alabama and Tennessee, which now have higher Gas Taxes than we do in Massachusetts. We’re the lowest in all of New England and New York, except for New Hampshire, which is just two cents lower than ours. But most of our peer states, the states that you think of that are kind of larger, “dynamic economy”, coastal states, not all of which are just cities, mind you, places that have significant rural populations, like in a New York, or a Pennsylvania, or a Washington state or a California; those states typically have Gas Taxes that are roughly double the Massachusetts Gas Tax. And because of that, they have far more resources to put into fixing their roads and bridges. In Massachusetts, since 1991, we have raised the Gas Tax a total of three cents, since 1991. So that’s a 14% increase over basically a 30 year period. It’s set us behind. It means that we cannot do the same amount of road and bridge repair now that we could do in 1991 before the effects of inflation eroded the value of those dollars coming in.
Karen Christensen 18:45
How much could a Gas Tax bring in, Chris?
Chris Dempsey 18:47
Well, so every penny on the Gas Tax raises roughly $30 million per year to be spent on roads and bridges. And the Gas Tax is down over the last year about 40 or 50 cents from where it was a year ago. So let’s say you just got halfway back to where it was a year ago. Let’s say you did 20 cents. That’s $600 million dollars a year that you would put into programs like Chapter 90, which goes directly to cities and towns; like the Small Bridge Program that funds bridges, like the ones you have in Great Barrington that are municipally owned; and like the Statewide Road and Bridge Program, which funds the larger bridges that you might use on the Turnpike or on other major highways. All of those could be supplemented if we had the political willingness to say we’re just going to bump up the Gas Tax five or ten cents.
Karen Christensen 19:41
Yeah, and I think once people see the context, see the reward, that’s going to make a difference. It’s not just a tax. And I know that in the meetings I’ve attended in Boston, with T4MA, that there’s always conversation about ways to make sure that any kind of new policy or fundraising method doesn’t unfairly impact people who are most economically vulnerable. And I think that that that’s a really interesting, complicated one to deal with.
Chris Dempsey 20:17
Yeah, you know, I should really credit some of your representatives out there, whether it’s Rep. Pignatelli or Rep. Farley-Bouvier. And then, of course, Senator Hinds, and as I mentioned, Senator Lesser earlier. With the regional ballot initiative idea where the local communities vote on these issues that I mentioned earlier, Senator Downing, your former senator in the Berkshires was the lead sponsor of that. And when he retired, or stepped down, he handed that bill to Senator Lesser who’s been a champion, and we’re grateful to him for leading that.
So I think you have folks in your legislature representing you, our legislature representing you, who understand that there needs to be balance. And they don’t approach this with ideology, they approach it with common sense. And at the end of the day, I think we’ll make the right decisions on these things that reflect really the wants and desires of the people they represent in Western Mass.
Karen Christensen 21:14
It’s really great to see this kind of cooperation at a time when, obviously, there’s so many challenges that face us as a state and nation. I really appreciate your work. I appreciate the chance to learn from you and your colleagues there in Boston. And appreciate your joining us today, Chris.
Chris Dempsey 21:35
Well, Karen, thanks so much. And I really thank you for all of your engagement with our coalition, and the grassroots energy and spirit that you bring to the work that you do to restore rail service in your community and, really, up and down the corridor in Western Massachusetts. It’s inspiring work. And you’ve done a lot with a little out there, in terms of the volunteer resources that you put into it. So bravo to you, and thanks so much for your partnership.
Karen Christensen 22:07
Thanks very much. All right, take care then.