AS A STATE REPRESENTATIVE, I routinely drove 125 miles between my home in the Western Massachusetts Hilltown of Worthington and Beacon Hill. This makes it all the more remarkable that during my 25 years in the Legislature, I probably logged the majority of my driving miles within my far-flung rural district, serving my constituency in an area almost half the size of Rhode Island.
This experience of traveling long distances is similar to that of hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents who call small towns and rural areas home.
I—and countless others—love country living and the many things it offers. Still, the transportation challenges faced by rural residents are significant. When doctors, stores, schools, kids’ sports and more are 25 miles from home, the cost of getting around can be exorbitantly high, whether in terms of fuel, vehicle maintenance, or wear and tear on the driver. For older residents aging away from driving, these distances can create new complications. Simultaneously, they make rural life less appealing for many younger people.
These miles add up in another way, too, by contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
The good news is we have an opportunity to address rural transportation challenges and the desperate need for transportation emissions reduction through the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative in which Gov. Charlie Baker has enlisted Massachusetts.
The Commonwealth is working with eight other states and the District of Columbia to design a regional transportation policy that would reduce carbon emissions from transportation. Governors indicated support for using a market-based mechanism, such as cap and invest, that would enable investment in low-carbon transportation solutions and more resilient transportation infrastructure.
This initiative’s formal announcement made headlines in December. In coming weeks, we expect participating states to provide a regional plan and a roadmap for developing complementary programs and implementation over the next year.
Baker has shown great leadership as this effort has taken shape. Most recently, he highlighted the Transportation and Climate Initiative in his February 6 testimony before Congress calling for bipartisan solutions and federal leadership. I hope he will continue to lead and help drive the regional conversation towards a strong program.
This work is great fit for the governor, who is known for his pragmatic and analytical approach to policy. He and his team should use these skills to ensure any regional cap and invest approach is designed in way that keeps front and center the unique challenges facing rural residents.
I am confident he will have their support if he does.
Interactions with friends and constituents over the years convince me rural residents know we have a climate change problem and want to address it.
Recent public opinion research of Massachusetts rural residents commissioned by The Nature Conservancy—for which I now serve on the Massachusetts Board of Trustees—supports this. Specifically, The Nature Conservancy-commissioned research indicates rural and small-town Massachusetts voters are concerned about the impacts of climate change, eager to have more transportation options, and strongly support creation of a clean transportation fund that would invest in transportation choices that reduce pollution.
What could we achieve?
Clean transportation funding for Massachusetts could help people afford electric vehicles and support charging stations. Strides are being made in producing winter-worthy electric vehicles with longer mileage ranges, and a recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows the sizeable economic benefits electric vehicles can provide to rural consumers.
Clean transportation funding also could support transportation network companies that connect riders with drivers using personal vehicles, more funding for regional transit authorities, and eventually money for East-West passenger rail service between Boston and Pittsfield.
Combined with upgraded, resilient transportation infrastructure and continued expansion of rural broadband Internet—two other ideas that generated strong endorsement in The Nature Conservancy’s commissioned research—these changes could save rural residents money, strengthen small-town economies, improve quality of life, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This would help create a more sustainable future for all of us.
Stephen Kulik lives in Worthington and retired from the Massachusetts Legislature in 2018 after representing the 1st Franklin District as a Democrat for 25 years. He now serves on the Massachusetts board of The Nature Conservancy.