Transit and Equity Advocate Stephanie Pollack to Lead MassDOT
Stephanie Pollack was one of the first transportation experts who made a serious impression on me. A few weeks after I started working at Streetsblog, at my first Rail~volution conference, she gave a presentation on the complex relationship between transit, gentrification, and car ownership. Her energy, intellectual rigor, and passion for social justice were apparent in her nuanced work exploring the reasons why car ownership rates tend to rise in neighborhoods with new transit services — and how it hurts not just the transportation system and the environment, but the poor.
The person who opened a Rail~volution session on transit and equity with, “I spent a couple of decades as a transit and equity advocate before I went into academia,” has just been named the director of a state department of transportation.
By a Republican governor.
When Streetsblog fretted about what a Charlie Baker victory over Democrat Martha Coakley could mean for transportation, naming such a firebrand as his transportation secretary seemed unthinkable. But perhaps Baker will continue the legacy of moderate Republican Massachusetts governors who care about smart growth.
Or perhaps he was simply impressed by Pollack’s résumé, including her leadership at Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and her service on numerous teams and panels to help design city- and statewide public transportation and housing policy.
The Boston Globe’s headline yesterday about Pollack’s nomination read, “Baker names gas tax advocate as transit chief,” noting that “Baker has said he does not plan to raise taxes.” But Pollack’s history is much more interesting than her position on the gas tax.
Her research focuses on the intersection between transportation and equity. How can planners bring transit services into a neighborhood without bringing gentrification along with it? Are all communities equally consulted in the lead-up to major transportation changes? Are higher gas taxes “elitist or equitable”? (You can guess by that Globe headline which side she comes down on. Actually, don’t just guess — this short presentation of her conclusions is worth perusing.)
Pollack speaks passionately about investing in transit to upgrade and update Boston’s aging system — on behalf of the economically vulnerable and everyone else — and helped lead the city’s Climate Action Plan. She has defended the federal tax benefit for transit riders and sounded the alarm about racial disparities in commuting habits. She recently told a gathering of HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, “Messing up land use within a half mile of transit should be a felony.” Plus, she’s a frequent re-tweeter of Streetsblog stories. What’s not to love?
Pollack steps into a position with a recent history of forward-looking transportation policy. Her predecessor, Richard Davey, launched a “mode shift” campaign with the goal of tripling the share of trips taken by non-automotive modes. “I have news for you,” Davey said in 2012. “We will build no more superhighways in this state.”
Right now, the commonwealth of Massachusetts needs smart leadership on transportation. Just two months ago, voters repealed the automatic indexing of the gas tax to inflation, leaving MassDOT in the same cash-strapped fiscal position as many other transportation agencies. Pollack’s boss, Governor Baker, has not only nixed the idea of a gas tax hike, he’s also against higher tolls. And meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee has chosen Boston as the U.S. contender to host the 2024 games.