Biz Execs call on state to fix public transit

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Biz Execs call on state to fix public transit

January 13, 2013

John Fish (left), founder and chief executive of Suffolk Construction and Chairman of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, an organization of 15 prominent chief executives, and Bob Davis, managing partner of Highland Capital Partners. (Bill Brett for The Boston Globe)

John Fish (left), founder and chief executive of Suffolk Construction and Chairman of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, an organization of 15 prominent chief executives, and Bob Davis, managing partner of Highland Capital Partners. (Bill Brett for The Boston Globe)

By Eric Moskowitz / Globe Staff / January 12, 2013

Leaders of many of the state’s largest employers and a civic-minded nonprofit are urging Beacon Hill to act boldly on transportation, warning that failure to invest substantially in the Commonwealth’s aging highway and transit network would have a sweeping economic impact.

A study commissioned by a CEO round table and the Boston Foundation estimates that the cumulative economic drain of reduced productivity, lost time, vehicle damage, freight delays, and other costs associated with failing to repair the state’s cramped and crumbling highways could total $26 billion by 2030.

The group endorses investment in transit as well as highways, and the cost of inaction would almost certainly be higher if the MBTA and other regional bus systems were allowed to continue to erode — forcing more transit riders onto the highways — but those costs are difficult to quantify with the same precision, the report’s lead author said.

But every dollar the state spends on transportation infrastructure yields $2.04 in immediate activity for the state economy, according to the report, through materials purchases and spending by construction workers who are employed. That’s before the longer-term benefits of that highway or transit project even kick in.

The study makes the case for investment just as Governor ­Deval Patrick is preparing a roadmap for spending as much as $13 billion more over the next decade to repair and enhance the state’s aging transportation systems, lending Patrick some influential allies from beyond the cadre of planners, environmentalists, academics, and other advocates who consistently weigh in to support transportation investment.

“This is potentially going to be a bold initiative — I hope that it is,” said John Fish, founder and chief executive of Suffolk Construction and chairman of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, an organization of 15 prominent chief executives. “The business community really needs to take a hard look at this and understand that if we really want to be the best state in the union, this has to be a priority.”

Lawmakers, transportation advocates, and civic and business leaders view the new legislative session as a rare opportunity to address the state’s backlog of needed repairs to deteriorating roads, bridges, and transit systems and put annual highway and transit operations on sound financial footing. But a difficult debate looms over what taxes or fees to raise, and how much.

On Monday, Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey is expected to deliver a report ordered by the Legislature tallying the cost of all of those long-deferred repairs and replacements, as well as strategic investments in perennially postponed projects, such as restoration of commuter rail routes to Fall River and New Bedford. The report will also contain a menu of possible taxes and fees.

But the administration declined to reveal how it plans to pay for everything until Patrick delivers his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday, followed by his state budget proposal a week later.

The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership — which includes New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft as well as the chief executives of Fidelity, Raytheon, Staples, and Partners HealthCare — and the Boston Foundation are not weighing in yet on specific taxes or a target amount. They acknowledge that new revenues will be necessary but are letting the administration take the lead.

Instead, they are setting the stage with their “Cost of Doing Nothing” report to warn that inaction or insufficient action could hamper the state’s economic recovery and erode competitiveness. The coalition promotes transportation investment to bolster the whole state, and buoy the middle class from the Berkshires to the Cape.

“This really is the moment to do something significant,” said Paul Grogan, chief executive of the century-old Boston Foundation. “It would be a shame not to seize it and end up kicking the can down the road, as governments everywhere seem to be doing.”

Fish, of Suffolk Construction, called transportation “one of the most important ingredients” for the success of any business, and for the state.

“Time is a commodity we can’t buy any more of,” he said. “We’ve gone on too long without really repairing what we currently have now and putting in a solid strategic plan for the future of how we improve the quality of our transportation systems.”

The Boston Foundation has a history of engaging on ­issues such as education, health care, and community development, while the newer CEO group has helped shape policy on issues such as green energy and workforce training. Neither has directly weighed in on transportation before, but each group has become acutely aware of how transportation weaves through those other issues and underpins the economy.

Among the many large and small impacts, consider Greenfield Community College’s new programs to prepare workers for careers in the expanding energy-efficiency/alternative energy fields, said Dan O’Connell, president of the CEO partnership and a former state housing and economic development secretary. To reach the campus, potential students from Springfield without cars must rely on a patchwork of indirect buses and travel two hours each way , he said.

“At a time when resources are tight and the appetite for new revenue at the state level is also tight, we thought that making the case for targeted investment in transportation infrastructure was a case that our group should be associated with,” he said.

The report, prepared by the global infrastructure firm AECOM , will be released in full later this week, but the group shared a 17-page summary with the transportation secretary and the Globe.

Davey said it lends new numbers to a case the administration is already making.

“What the governor’s been saying the last couple years about transportation is that we need to invest in transportation not for transportation’s sake but because it’s the backbone of the economy,” he said, citing as an example the catalyzing effect of $3 million to improve Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport, which triggered a $20 million Gulfstream investment in a maintenance hangar that will sustain more than 100 new jobs.

And along the Mystic River, the state’s roughly $22 million investment in a new Orange Line station at Assembly Square is widely viewed as the linchpin in a $1.5 billion private redevelopment of the windswept former manufacturing site.

With more revenue, the state could invest in more such projects, as well as necessary repairs, Davey said.

AECOM, which has worked on similar reports for other regions, calculated the cost to the economy of failing to repair and maintain the highway system at $18 billion to $26 billion over the next two decades, using a model developed by the Federal Highway Administration and vetted by the US Government Accountability Office. The estimate of the multiplier effect of investing in infrastructure was determined using a Bureau of Economic Analysis model.

Martin Wachs, emeritus professor of planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the models are standard and the estimates appear credible and may even be considered conservative, given that they do not include transit.

“I thought the numbers were quite plausible, and not in any way alarmist,” said Wachs, who reviewed the report summary for the Globe. “They were accurate representations of the situation that many [states and regions] face.”

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

© Copyright 2013 Globe Newspaper Company.

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