Learning From the Past to Build a Better Transportation Future For Greater Boston

Seth Kaplan

Imagine this: the Governor of Massachusetts addresses the people of the state about an important issue. From the television screen he looks us all in the eye and discusses . . . transportation infrastructure. Improbable? How about if this happened back in the days of when Boston had 5 commercial channels and one public TV station and a statewide address by a Governor was a very big deal? It may be hard to believe that a subject that wonky and technical could be the focus of that sort of hot and intense attention. But it happened.

The year was 1970 and the Governor was Frank Sargent, the strong leader who years later served as Chairman of the Board of CLF. In that dramatic 1970 speech Governor Sargent accepted a report from a special task force reviewing plans to build a massive network of highways in and around Boston and launched a planning effort that set the course of transportation planning for decades to come. Memorably, Governor Sargent, a former head of the state agency that built and operated highways (then known as the “Department of Public Works”) confessed: “Nearly everyone was sure that highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come. But we were wrong.”

The powerful story of that speech, the events that precipitated it and most importantly the massive planning process that followed it is told in The Roads Not Taken, the core story in Turn Signal, the Winter issue of ArchitectureBoston, the quarterly publication of the Boston Society of Architects. And the rest of the issue is well worth your time – both for the eloquent essays, like the story of the activists who fought off the highways that were threatening their community, and the photo essays that document what was saved when the highways were stopped.

The good folks at ArchitectureBoston have done something very important here. The Boston Transportation Planning Review (the “BTPR”) that grew out of that  very unique moment set a powerful precedent for the nation and charted a course that has literally shaped the face and communities of Greater Boston. CLF has had a front-row seat at the implementation process for the BTPR and dove into that process even deeper, unsurprisingly given the importance of the transportation system to our mission and the unique fact that Governor Sargent served as Chair of CLF’s Board of Trustees after leaving office.

As Stephanie Pollack, who worked here at CLF with great distinction for many years, powerfully describes the challenge going forward in an essay in Turn Signal:

Forty years on, the time has come for the Commonwealth to fulfill three of the most important unkept promises: institutionalizing open and visionary planning, healing the scars still left in neighborhoods cleared for the cancelled highway projects, and completing and funding the state’s public transportation system.

This theme of the need to finish the job of the BTPR by providing needed funding to our transportation system and institutionalizing good planning practices was picked up in a recent Boston Globe Op-Ed by former Governor Michael Dukakis and another elder statesman of Massachusetts government who began his career in the BTPR era, Stephen Crosby. Dukakis and Crosby wrote:

With transportation issues again at the top of the Commonwealth’s political agenda, we should look back at those long-ago events not out of nostalgia, but as a roadmap for the equally momentous decisions we face today. After decades of investment, Massachusetts has a vastly improved transportation system that includes an extensive network of highways, the MBTA, and regional transit systems serving virtually every part of the state. But this system and the people and businesses that depend on it are in trouble. From aging bridges in Springfield to the T’s financial woes, the state is paying the price for neglecting the basic maintenance and financial backing that any transportation system requires.

And we can’t just maintain what we’ve already built. For a first-class economic future, the Commonwealth requires a first-class transportation system. As state transportation officials have already spelled out, this future will rely heavily on public transportation and will focus highway funds on maintenance rather than expansion. Massachusetts needs to expand existing transit and build high-speed rail to serve the entire state. With so many projects awaiting action, the Commonwealth once again needs to set honest and rigorous priorities for transportation investment — and create a long-term financing plan to efficiently implement those priorities.

This is indeed the bottom line: building thriving communities will require vision, careful planning and investing in our transportation system. This is not the most fun message (folks may claim otherwise but no one really enjoys slowing down to plan or paying for investments) but it is a solid truth — if we want to keep moving forward we need to build, maintain and operate the system that literally keeps us moving.

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