Bikes Endangering Pedestrians, Says State Transpo Chief


As bike lanes have expanded across Massachusetts, Transportation Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt said safety concerns are cropping up along the new public ways , and not just with cars.

Cyclists moving quickly are dangerous for pedestrians, she said, and crashes could even endanger their lives.

"We're having a significant amount of issues with cyclists and pedestrians because we have a lot of these cycle tracks where people are just blowing through there and then they hit a crosswalk across from a hospital or across from a senior center, and they're in a situation where they're going fast enough that they can actually kill someone," Tibbits-Nutt said on Tuesday.

The transportation secretary was in Watertown on Tuesday speaking to the Charles River Chamber of Commerce, where she outlined updates to her plan for the state's roads, trains, buses and infrastructure.

Tibbits-Nutt made it clear that the Healey administration isn't pursuing more tolls -- after she floated the idea, starting a controversial conversation around transportation funding. Still, she says, the issue of needing more revenue isn't going away. 

"I spend a lot of time talking about different funding mechanisms. That is a very controversial thing to talk about," she said, to laughter from the few dozen attendees. "But we have to talk about it. And whether people think my idea is crappy that's fine, but we need ideas. We need any ideas because we've used everything we have and the tools aren't working."

Massachusetts does have a major new education and transportation funding source in the form of an income surtax on the wealthiest households, but some policymakers in the administration and the Legislature are on the hunt for more revenue. Bicyclists do not contribute to transportation funding, nor are they any longer required to be registered or insured.

The transportation secretary also discussed traffic congestion, funding the Allston multimodal project and its importance for transit equity, commuter rail worker contract negotiations with operator Keolis, her confidence in the Cape Cod bridges finally getting replaced, and, in general, her hope around current efforts to update Massachusetts' aging transportation infrastructure.

On bike lanes, Tibbits-Nutt said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is exploring ways to try to slow cyclists in areas where there are walkers.

They're considering traffic lights in bike lanes and barriers at crosswalks for cyclists to ride through that will force them to slow their speeds. Tibbits-Nutt also said the department is using newly available data from a vulnerable road user law passed last year to track where accidents are happening -- both between cyclists and pedestrians, and cyclists and motor vehicles.

"We know that there is a problem and we're trying to figure out a way to tweak this, but this one, this is much harder than I think anyone intended it to be when putting in these bike lanes," she said.

The secretary also warned about a rise in distracted driving since the COVID-19 pandemic, and how motor vehicles pose a risk to both cyclists and pedestrians.

Distracted driving, plus people moving farther from where they work, could be among the factors causing a rise in accidents and traffic congestion, she said.

May has been one of the worst months for traffic congestion in Massachusetts "in a very, very long time," Tibbits-Nutt said.

"People don't live anywhere near where they work," she said. "So that's the reason why I talk a lot about housing. I can't halt congestion. There are only so many tools we have, and most of them are punitive. You can charge more tolls within the commonwealth. You can charge for congestion pricing, which is insanely expensive for people who drive, but that doesn't actually solve the central problem of how you get people to where they need to go."

She later clarified that the administration is not, in fact, recommending more tolls to roads. Tibbits-Nutt also did not reprise her rhetoric about "basically going after everybody who has money" to make transportation more affordable and effective, after her comments last month received backlash.

Though she didn't share any new ideas for transportation funding reform, the secretary discussed how recently acquired funding could be transformational for a few key, long-term projects.

Tibbits-Nutt touted the Allston multimodal project as an important development for regional equity.

The project — whose cost could reach nearly $2 billion — aims to reorganize a knot of infrastructure in Allston by aligning Interstate 90, Soldiers Field Road, rail tracks and a new pedestrian boardwalk side-by-side at ground level. The turnpike currently slices through a narrow stretch of land between Boston University and the Charles River, dividing the area with an aging, elevated viaduct.

Plans also call for construction of a new West Station commuter rail hub for the MBTA, which would be on the Worcester/Framingham Line between the existing Lansdowne and Boston Landing stops. Project presentations envision West Station as a three-platform, four-track stop with a layover rail yard, located just a bit northwest of BU's Agganis Arena.

Tibbits-Nutt said the station is "incredibly important" to a proposed passenger rail expansion into western Massachusetts, often referred to as West-East or East-West Rail. The secretary made a point of calling it West-East rail, saying it would connect the western part of Massachusetts.

The state was recently allocated $335 million for the project, which she said "no one in the country ever thought we were going to get for this project."

"The project is huge, and people talk about this like 'Well, it is just transforming Boston and Cambridge,' actually one of the things we've been talking about is West-East rail -- and it is West-East rail, not East-West rail -- we're connecting Springfield all the way in. And we can't do that if we don't do the Allston multimodal project," she said. "It is insanely expensive. It really is. But for all of us using I-90, it's finally going to straighten that thing out."

She added that the project would reconnect the Allston and Brighton neighborhoods, which are currently divided by the highway, and allow people to walk from that area of Boston down to the river.

Similarly, the transportation secretary discussed federal funding for the Cape Cod bridges.

The project has struggled to get off the ground for years, as the dollars required to replace the bridges have grown.

"They're going to get replaced. It's fine. How do we pay for it? We're still like $1 billion short, but it'll be fine," she said. "Here's the thing though, and I just want to be very honest. We have no choice but to fix them. So they're going to get fixed."

The state committed $700 million toward the two bridges' construction in March, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, plans to provide another $600 million, subject to congressional approval.

Officials have previously estimated replacing both bridges could cost more than $4.5 billion, and the March announcement of the federal-state agreement did not address the full funding needs of the two projects.

A member of the audience at the event told the secretary she was concerned about commuter rail employees not getting paid sick leave, as contract negotiations between rail workers and the commuter rail operator have spanned several months.

"It's been really concerning to me that our railroad workers have gone a couple of years without a contract and they still don't have paid sick time," the audience member said. "So when we think about crashes, when we think about accidents, and think about safety -- and of course that is paramount -- we should want people to be going to work when they feel well."

Tibbits-Nutt pointed out that commuter rail employees are not overseen by the state, but by Keolis -- the operator that Massachusetts' contracts with to run the rail. But she promised Tuesday that the workers would be getting paid sick time in their new contract.

"What Keolis is doing right now is they're negotiating and they are getting very, very close to coming to an agreement on what that needs to look like. But yes, they will be getting sick time that I can guarantee you," she said.

GBH reported Monday that the union representing the coach cleaners and car inspectors on the commuter rail service reached a tentative agreement with Keolis. The five-year contract would raise wages by 4 percent to 5 percent annually, and add paid sick days, a $2,000 signing bonus and make Juneteenth a paid holiday, retroactive to July 2023, GBH reported.

Despite traffic accidents and congestion, new concerns with bike lanes, the MBTA undergoing a major overhaul, and questions lingering about how to pay to fix old infrastructure, Tibbits-Nutt said on Tuesday that she was optimistic about moving transportation accessibility, affordability and safety in the right direction.

"2024 is going to be an amazing year for transportation, but it is going to be tough," she said. "The next five to 10 years are going to be really tough. We have so much to do, so much will change ... We will be retired by the time we're done, but it will be finished so our children can enjoy it."

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