Poll: Massachusetts voters feeling strain from transportation challenges, support policy changes including new funding

Half of those with commutes over 45 minutes say they’ve recently considered changing jobs; 30% have considered leaving their area altogether

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Massachusetts voters, especially those who commute to work, are paying emotional and economic tolls as they negotiate the state’s crowded and strained roads and public transit systems. A new statewide registered voter survey from The MassINC Polling Group finds voters feel urgency toward action, including raising new funds for the state’s roads, bridges, and public transit. The poll was designed with input from a steering committee of policy experts, transportation planners, and business leaders and was sponsored by The Barr Foundation.

Two-thirds of voters (67%) report leaving earlier or later to avoid traveling during the worst traffic; nearly as many (63%) say they have felt stressed, angry or frustrated. Full-time employees are feeling the effects even more acutely, with 72% reporting emotional impacts and about half (52%) saying they have been late to work in the past few months (See chart). Among full-time employees who commute on public transportation, impacts are still more severe—63% report having been late for work, and 53% say they’ve been late for appointments in the recent past.

Commuters with longest commutes are being pushed to the brink. Among full-time workers who commute more than 45 minutes every morning, 71% report having been late for work recently. About half (51%) of those same workers have considered changing jobs to improve their commutes and 30% have considered leaving their area altogether.

“These impact numbers, especially among those with the longest commutes, should be a red flag for the business community in Massachusetts,” says Steve Koczela, President of The MassINC Polling Group, who conducted the poll. “The levels of frustration we are seeing in this poll suggest a significant portion of workers are reaching a breaking point when it comes to their commutes.”

Jay Ash, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership says employers are getting the same messages from their workers. “This polling echoes what employers have been hearing from their workers for some time now,” he said. “That’s why business leaders continue to prioritize transportation policy advancement: for the convenience of our residents and businesses, and the overall health of our economy.”

Not only are voters feeling frustrated, they also see little improvement in the recent past or going forward. Only 17% think transportation has gotten easier over the past 5 years; only 19% expect it will get easier over the next 5 years.

“As a planning agency, we’re always looking ahead to what the region will be like 10, 20, or 30 years from now,” says Lizzi Weyant of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “These numbers show that the region needs to make some big changes – from investing in public transit to coordinating transportation with land-use decisions like where to build housing – to meet today’s needs and to prepare for the future.”

Voters, for their part, appear to be ready for change, with 66% agreeing that “action is urgently needed to improve the state’s transportation system,” compared to 21% who say the system is working pretty well as is. That action extends to raising new money to invest in the transportation system, which is supported by 80% of voters.

“There can only be one conclusion from this poll: The patient doesn’t need a Band-Aid; the patient needs surgery,” said Jesse Mermell, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership. “In order to ensure the Commonwealth’s future economic competitiveness, solutions to this problem must be comprehensive, equitable, and implemented quickly.”

Voters also support specific polices to raise money, reduce congestion, and fight climate change, including:

  • The Transportation Climate Initiative: 68% support Massachusetts joining with other states in a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by charging a fee to gasoline importers.
  • Regional ballots: 55% support letting cities and regions hold votes to raise local taxes to fund transportation projects.
  • Regional rail: 80% support increasing the frequency of commuter rail trains running to and from Boston to every 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day, at night and on weekends.
  • Off-peak toll discounts: 82% support giving drivers a discount if they drive outside of rush hour, to reduce congestion.

“Other cities’ experience shows that taking just a few cars off the road can have a big impact on traffic congestion,” said Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts. “That’s why it’s encouraging that large majorities of voters in this poll support policies like smarter tolling and regional rail, which could shift travel habits and reduce congestion.”

Bad commutes are not the only issue on voters’ minds. Three-quarters of voters think the state’s roads, highways and bridges are in only fair condition or worse; just 23% calling them “excellent” or “good”. A majority (55%) think that traffic in Greater Boston will always be a serious problem. Addressing highway and road conditions was the top priority for the state’s voters (75% major priority), followed by congestion reduction (68%).

Voters see more hope for the MBTA; 64% think the T could improve with better policies. This, combined with the fact that 86% think public transit makes traffic better by taking cars off the road, suggests that improving transit may be seen as a way to address traffic woes as well. The poll found several obstacles to getting commuters out of their cars and onto transit, including the perceived lack of frequency and reliability of public transit.

“There is clear recognition among the Commonwealth’s workforce that a regional rail system and sound strategies to reduce traffic congestion are urgently needed,” said Kathryn Carlson, Director of Transportation for A Better City. “The growing chorus of voices – from the business community to transit advocates to people in cities and towns across the Commonwealth – are singing the same refrain: 2019 must be a year of action at the State House to deliver the modern, comfortable, and convenient transportation system we deserve.“

About the poll

These results are based on a survey of 1,200 Massachusetts registered voters conducted by The MassINC Polling Group (MPG) Responses were collected via online survey interviewing March 15-25, 2019. Final survey data was weighted to known and estimated population parameters for the state’s registered voters by age, gender, race, education, geography, and political self-identification.

Survey questions were drafted in consultation with a steering committee of policy experts, transportation planners, and business leaders. These included the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Business Leadership, the 495/MetroWest Partnership, A Better City, the Barr Foundation, the Conservation Law Foundation, The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, Livable Streets Alliance, MassINC, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Boston Harbor Now, Transportation for Massachusetts, and WalkBoston. While the steering committee gave input on topics for questions, MPG had final editorial control of the survey and was solely responsible for collecting data and analyzing the results.

This project was sponsored by the Barr Foundation. MPG has been conducting polling and focus groups about transportation for the Barr Foundation since 2012.

Meet The Authors

Steve Koczela

President, The MassINC Polling Group

Rich Parr

Research Director, The MassINC Polling Group

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