It’s time to have a pro-transit administration, according to one candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor — and he says the number one job is improving safety and access to reliable mass transit.
“A healthy, well-functioning MBTA is generating economic growth for the state, is generating jobs, is creating tax revenue that can help the whole rest of the state,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, in a Friday, Aug. 12 interview with the Whitman-Hanson Express. “I think, sometimes, that message is lost because the current governor tends to present the T as a problem for Boston, rather than something that the whole state needs to work on.”
Lesser faces two opponents — Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and state Rep. Tami Guveia of Acton in the state Primary on Tuesday, Sept. 6. Republicans, and former state representatives Kate Campanale of Leicester and Leah Cole Allen of Peabody, will also square off in a primary vote Sept. 6.
Lesser is the only candidate from western Massachusetts on the ballot as well as the only one with federal experience, he points out. He stressed that he worked on the White House Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama Administration and knows Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, which could help with communication as the state works with the USDOT’s Federal Transit Authority (FTA) considers whether it will take over the MBTA system, he said.
When an Orange Line train caught fire last month, the video of the smoky blaze on a bridge over the Mystic River illustrated the state of MBTA management for many riders and state officials.
A member of the state Senate Transportation Committee, Lesser said MBTA Genera Manager Steve Poftak and state Secretary of Transportation Jeremy Tesler attended a recent hearing to say the T is safe. Two days later, the Orange Line train caught fire and a woman jumped into the Mystic River to escape.
“There’s no amount of money that can change that culture,” Lesser said. “They just have a disregard for passengers. If your T car catches fire, you don’t get a refund.”
Following the Orange Line fire, a Framingham Line train was stuck with no power or air conditioning during the recent oppressively hot weather. Passengers pried the doors open and climbed a fence to safety. An MBTA bus also caught fire during the past month, and the MBTA has shut down the Orange Line and part of the Green Line.
“It’s really terrible — and safety, obviously, has to be the number one priority,” Lesser said. “We’ve also got to keep an eye toward expanding [rail service] to more places.”
After Gov. Duval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Tim Murray worked to expand rail service to Worcester and improve rail service between 2007 and 2011, with 14 trains a day going into and out of that city, Worcester has been “completely transformed,” he said.
“There’s thousands of new units of housing in the pipeline, there’s hundreds of thousands of square feet of new lab space under construction,” he said. “New restaurants. The WoSox stadium. It’s been a really big benefit.”
A recent WBZ I-Team story has found, however, that problems now extend to “every [MBTA] line and include buses and the Commuter Rail.”
The FTA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are both investigating incidents on the Commuter Rail, run by Keolis, a multinational transportation company based in France, and some foresee a federal takeover of the T down the line. While Lesser doesn’t think a federal takeover is imminent, the Washington D.C. Metro was taken over in 2015, so there is precedent for such a move by the FTA, he said.
“The hope is we can work more in partnership with the federal government to avoid a takeover, but also to get the support we need to make the fixes — that’s really the key.”
In 2014 weekend service on the Fitchburg, Franklin, Greenbush, Haverhill, Kingston, Lowell, and Needham lines was restored after more than two years without it.
Jokes and bad news about the MBTA is not only no laughing matter, Lesser said, it breaks down public trust in the ability of the state to do big things.
Starved of funding for the past 40 or 50 years, he said, 25 percent of the MBTA budget now on debt service that they’ve had for generations.
“It’s crowded out the capital investment, it’s crowded out hiring,” he said. “But the second problem that really isn’t about money, is it’s become a step-child of the state government. There’s no accountability.”
Despite these challenges — or maybe, in part because of them, state Lesser is running for lieutenant governor on a platform that stresses the need for passenger rail improvements in Massachusetts.
“People, I don’t think, realize how much of the state has no rail access at all,” Lesser said. The problem with the rail expansion issue is that some people view it as taking the focus away from the core system.
“Actually, I think the opposite,” he said. “I think the continued health of the system relies on expansion because it’s going to bring new people in and connect more regions of the state.”
Lesser sees potential for it to create more political buy-in around the state for supporting mass transit, as well.
The state has received nearly $1.8 million to improve rail infrastructure, enhance safety, and improve train capacity in Western Massachusetts near Springfield Union Station, a key issue for Lesser, who said his goal is eventually high-speed rail service to western Massachusetts under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program. Thirty-one other states are also receiving CRISI grant program funding under awards announced on Thursday, June 2.
“It’ll take us a little bit of time to get there, but the idea here is, if you could connect Pittsfield, Springfield and Worcester to Boston — especially the three biggest cities in the state: Springfield, Worcester and Boston — by rail, it would be transformative on a number of levels and would really be a key to taking on some of the biggest challenges that we face,” he said.
It would be the single biggest greenhouse gas reduction project in state’s history, also reducing traffic congestion by removing thousands of cars from the state’s roadways.
“The Pioneer Valley area is one of the worst regions in the country for asthma,” Lesser noted. “Even in eastern Massachusetts, you’ve got really bad pollution and air-quality challenges.”
Another key element of the goal is “taking on the housing crisis,” creating thousands of units of good, affordable transit-oriented development.
“Imagine how many more communities would be able to be connected to that,” he said. “That’s going to be the key to getting housing prices under control. I don’t know how people live in Massachusetts anymore.”
Lesser said building the units would present thousands of really good, high quality jobs in those areas left out of the development around life sciences and tech firms.
The MBTA Communities program requires participating towns to present the guidelines to muncipal legisltive bodies at a public hearing, and town/city planners must prove that has been done, along with the filing of a form with the state before May 2. The deadline for interim compliance is Dec. 31 and for the action plan, the deadline is July 1, 2023. New zoning regulations must be adopted by Dec. 31, 2024. Towns have until March 31, 2024 to apply for termination of compliance. Both Whitman and Hanson have voted to acknowledge that the program has been presented to them with further discussion to come.
“It sounds to me like they’re trying to address energy issues with the housing crisis, but you also don’t want to lose the flavor of what it is to live in Hanson,” Selectman Joe Weeks during a March 15 discussion. “I’m very eager to see what [planners] come up with — I think it’s going to be an exciting by-law to kind of build and see what you can do.”
While local flavor and the zoning regulations that can go with the issue has been a hot topic, Lesser admits, a recent study indicated the state will be about 300,000 housing units short of the need by 2030.
He said the trend among younger adults is now to seek out smaller homes close to public transportation and near the shops and workplaces of a downtown center.
“I think this is a good example of where a lieutenant governor can work in partnership with communities, because as a top-down it doesn’t work,” Lesser said. The state could offer support to communities through MassWORKS grants to improve infrastructure and traffic patterns, the school center to make sure new students entering a district because of new housing are properly supported and teachers and staff get support they need. … I think that’s a great role for a lieutenant governor, which I think I’m well-suited to do because of the work I’ve done on transit.”
He said voters are also pointing to the state’s severe mental health crisis, especially in the schools, as well as child care affordability.
“For my own family, our child care bill is more than our mortgage,” Lesser said. “I’m hearing from young families all over the state that this is a major source of stress for them.”