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Downing Says Transportation Infrastructure Status Quo Is Holding Massachusetts Back

A bald white man in a collared shirt gesticulates.
Josh Landes
Ben Downing.

Berkshire County native and Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing is campaigning in Lee today. At 5 p.m., the former state senator will be at the Morgan House to talk about his transportation infrastructure plan. The first to announce for the 2022 election, Downing faces Harvard professor Danielle Allen, State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and duct cleaning company owner Orlando Silva in the Democratic primary. Downing, who describes Massachusetts’ transportation infrastructure as crumbling, spoke with WAMC:

DOWNING: The way that I believe that we need to try to get it that is to change the way that we think about transportation generally. First, we need to empower regions to have greater control over their transportation future, then we need to change how we fund transportation. For too long, we have been funding transportation largely through fares from riders on transit services. I think it makes far more sense to fund those as we do other public services like K through 12 education: through our taxes. I think that's a fair way of going about it. And we need to prioritize the investments in transportation, in transit, because if we're serious about confronting climate change, we need to reduce emissions from the transportation sector and from cars in particular. And while electric vehicles, and the transition there, will be a big part of it, another huge part of this that too often goes overlooked is giving people reliable, safe, affordable, quality options. And so that means building out our regional rail network. That means committing to building West-East rail by 2030, and other major investments along those lines.

WAMC: Let's talk about regional tail transit. East-West rail has long been a conversation in Berkshire County. How would you go about accomplishing that long awaited infrastructure goal over the next decade?

Yeah, so it's a couple of different things. First, you need statewide funding. So that would be made possible through the Fair Share Amendment, first and foremost, and if the Fair Share Amendment does not pass, I will have proposed in this campaign a comprehensive tax reform that I will present to the legislature and advocate for that as well. That would be one funding stream, along with support from the federal government, that will make up the two biggest buckets for that support. I think the biggest change that we have seen thus far during the debate on West-East rail is that you finally have a partner in the in the White House who sees transit as a key part of our economic revitalization strategy. And so having a federal partner we can rely on is key, being able to then bring in state resources, which we haven't been able to do today. And quite frankly, Governor Baker has dismissed the line and the potential that it has and has slow walked all attempts to study its overall value. We would then prioritize funding from the Fair Share Amendment or from comprehensive tax reform.

I want to take a look at the Regional Transit Authority out here in Berkshire County. What are your thoughts about public transit in the Berkshires? Where is it accomplishing what it’s set out to do, and where is it falling short? And how would you invest in that system if you were governor?

Yeah, absolutely. I think when you look at the transportation system in Massachusetts, probably the area for the greatest potential growth in benefits to riders, to communities are the RTAs s outside of Greater Boston. Oftentimes, the transportation debate in Massachusetts gets almost singularly focused on the MBTA. And I'm a rider of the MBTA now, I know how important that is. But I also know that the outer lying RTA is are critically important service providers for the communities that they operate in, from the BRTA right out to the Cape Regional Transit Authority as well. I think where the BRTA does best to date, and I think this is true of most of the non-MBTA RTAs, is in its really core service area. So sort of in and around Pittsfield and connecting Pittsfield to North Adams and a little bit in between there. But I think as you start to get off of that line, the system hasn't had the support it needs to be as flexible as it ought to be to meet the needs of students at MCLA, at BCC at Williams, down at Simon's Rock and others. And it certainly hasn't been responsive to the changes in the economy that we've seen in the Berkshires. Too often, you need to plan your day around the BRTA if you want to use it, instead of the BRTA being responsive to the economy and the needs of riders throughout the Berkshires. It can't be a, oh, it just happened to work out that I could ride it. It needs to be a, I can plan my day around regular reliable service from the B. And the way to do that is to have greater support from the state, which is why I'm proposing doubling state support for the RTAs.

In the ongoing narrative of Berkshire County often feeling forgotten or left out of larger statewide conversations, sometimes there's talk about tax dollars in the Berkshires going to the MBTA in Boston. What are your thoughts on that dynamic? And if you were governor, would you change any of it?

So this has significantly informed the policy that I've rolled out, and I think it's one of the unique things that I bring to the race for governor, one of the unique things I bring to the transportation debate. One of the reasons why I think I am the candidate uniquely positioned to break us out of a 40-year logjam on transportation policy, and I think unfortunately, our leaders for the last 40 years have pitted one region against the other and said, well, left all of us thinking, someone somewhere else has to be benefiting from the status quo. And the truth is that nowhere is benefiting from our current status quo. The Blue Line that I ride on is unreliable and too often floods because of climate-induced flooding. I know that there are thousands of culverts and bridges and roads in the Berkshires that are in need of repair that just the funding for one could break the back of an individual community. So the reason that I have prioritized in this proposal creating Regional Transportation Commissions and empowering those commissions to come forward with a plan and then to put that plan to voters to determine if they want to move forward with it is precisely to break us out of the status quo, right? Regions need to be empowered to control their regional destinies and futures and to reflect the fact that a, the 21st century transportation system of the Berkshires is going to look significantly different than the 21st century transportation system of Greater Boston, let alone Worcester, right? And, you know, this is something I worked on in the legislature. We were able to get through the Senate, not able to get through, ultimately, in the house or to the governor, but something that I will prioritize, and I think is key to establishing trust in the system, and then to winning the support of voters to fund the upgrade investments we need to make consistent.

Part of your transportation plan also refers to a commitment to Vision Zero, which would undertake a strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and support local efforts to make safer streets and more accessible streets. Here in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, there's always a lot of debate about how to structure downtown Pittsfield, and recent changes to North Street have led to all manner of conversation. And this is, of course, the implementation of bike lanes, reducing traffic on this downtown core corridor to a single lane- What I'm trying to say is that can be a very complicated conversation from business owners, from community members. How would you sell this to people who are skeptical about sweeping changes to key economic places like a Main Street?

Yeah, so I think everyone can agree to the broad goals. Right, Josh? And the broad goal being that we should have it as a stated goal across the 351 cities and towns that there will not be a transportation related fatality, especially for bikers, and walkers, right, because those are modes of transportation that we are trying to promote. We want people using public transit, we want people riding their bikes, we want people walking, and unfortunately, land use and transportation decisions for the last 30 years, the last 40 years, have pushed people into cars and said that's the only way to get around. And too often, it's been the only way for people to connect to economic opportunities, to go out and do their groceries, to get to their doctors, right? So I think we all agree to the broadly-held goal. And then it's making sure that communities are not in a scarcity mindset as they are implementing these solutions, knowing full well that if, you know, you think there's only going to be one time you get a grant, you might have to rush it and not do the broad public participation that you'd want to to try to answer some of these tricky questions, knowing full well that that land use decisions are always going to be contested at the local level, as they should be. That robust debate is a good thing. I don't think there's anything in a statewide policy that's going to change that, short of there being sufficient funds to address legitimate concerns. And I think one of the things that we find is the more you get people out of their cars, the better it's ultimately going to be for our downtowns, for our merchants, for our restaurants and other industries that we know have been hit so hard in particular over the last couple of years. And that is from someone who worked in downtown Pittsfield for 10 years. I grew up you know, probably, I don't know, call it a dozen blocks outside of the downtown and regularly walked through it. We need to be encouraging more folks to use their bikes and walking in downtowns across the state, and a big part of that is setting a goal that that's going to be a safe way to be able to get around.

What exactly you hoping folks get out of the conversation with you about your transportation plan?

I'm hoping that folks know that we are not locked into the status quo, number one. Number two, that the status quo isn't just leaving behind the Berkshires. The status quo is leaving behind every region of the state. And the way that we get out of that is by having a clear commitment to building a transportation system that will help us build a stronger economy, that will do so in a way that is in line with our climate goals, and with principles around racial and economic justice. And that ultimately, by empowering regions, and by having those clear statewide goals, we have the ability to build a Massachusetts that is fair, that is stronger, and that will create more economic opportunity in every corner of the state. It's not about one region succeeding at the other regions’ expense. Everywhere is being held back by our status quo, and we need to break out of it with new ideas and new solutions and bold ideas, and that’s exactly what I'm proposing.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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