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By Angela Cotey, Senior Associate Editor
In summer 2013, the Massachusetts legislature approved a series of tax hikes that pave the way for the commonwealth to borrow up to $6.4 billion for transportation projects — including substantial investments in transit and freight rail. Now, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and associated agencies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), are gearing up to launch a series of transportation improvement projects that would be financed through the tax increases.Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick proposed the investment program, known as "The Way Forward: A 21st Century Transportation Plan," in January 2013. But the administration paved the way for the plan's approval years before that. In 2009, Patrick signed an act that called for modernizing Massachusetts' transportation systems, requiring that the commonwealth integrate its transportation agencies into a new, streamlined Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). The public works and transportation, turnpike authority, highway department, registry of motor vehicles, port authority and aeronautics commission were merged into one department. In addition, MBTA and the Regional Transportation Authorities now are overseen by MassDOT. The aim: to reform the commonwealth transportation agencies and gain more public trust, particularly following the Big Dig, a Boston highway project plagued with cost and scheduling overruns. "Very fundamentally, we are looking at how to break down silos, simplify, streamline and contain costs," said MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott — who also holds the title of MassDOT's rail and transit administrator — during a fall 2013 interview. To that end, the agencies that MassDOT comprises share single human resource, legal, civil rights, real estate and joint development, government affairs and marketing departments. The restructuring is trickling down to the individual agencies, as well. For example, each MassDOT agency has stipulations for revenue targets. MBTA is expected to generate at least 35 percent of its revenue from the farebox, as well as consider naming right and sponsorship opportunities, says Scott. In addition, the authority's "very favorable" pension and medical benefits programs have been rolled into the commonwealth's benefit programs, says Scott. "All of this was done on the foundation of transportation reform and rethinking how we do business here, to give the public confidence so we could make the case for asking for an amount of money that will be required for state of good repair," she says.Patrick's transportation program proposal initially included $13 billion in transportation investment over 10 years. While the Legislature only approved about half that amount in various tax and fee hikes, there will still be plenty of projects the commonwealth can complete — and more than 60 percent of them will be transit and rail projects, says Scott."It isn't a competition, but … there is an appreciation of the fact that there is value in rail and transit investment, and you can see how that’s reflected in the way the dollars are being spent," she says.Of the transit projects that will be funded through The Way Forward plan, more than half are designed to bring existing infrastructure to a state of good repair. MBTA projects include rehabilitating rail cars; purchasing new rail cars and locomotives; upgrading track and signals; rehabilitating Springfield Station; and replacing the fiber-optic signal communication system."Our first priority is fixing and rehabilitating what we have," says Scott. "You cannot put lipstick on a pig."Expansion projects are on the docket, too. MassDOT and MBTA expect to launch the South Coast Rail Project, a long-discussed proposal to restore passenger-rail service from Boston's South Station to Massachusetts' southern coast. The agencies also plan to extend the Green Line from East Cambridge to Union Square in Somerville and College Avenue in Medford. But the most critical project that would be funded through the new transportation plan is the expansion of Boston’s South Station. The Way Forward commits $850 million toward the project, which calls for adding seven tracks to Boston’s transportation hub. After rail ridership began to decline in the 1950s, portions of the station were demolished."This is our biggest core capacity project," says Scott. "We cannot have any kind of substantial increase in commuter-rail service — let alone high-speed rail — if we don't add capacity there."The Way Forward will fund other rail projects aimed at improving commuter-, intercity-and freight-rail services in the commonwealth, such as restoring short lines that serve industrial and commercial parks, and rehabilitating grade crossings and bridges."There was never a question of whether the need for any of these projects was there, but as difficult as the economic climate has been, it's always been a question of how you would do it," says Scott. "I believe that as long as we are very clear about delivering the scope, the schedule and the budget, that we are very clear about delivering the program that we put forth, the support will be there."