Former Mass Gov. Mike Dukakis: Driving Is For Turkeys

The former Democratic presidential candidate deserves a revival for his ideas on making transportation sustainable.

Mike Dukakis. Photo: Hellenism.net
Mike Dukakis. Photo: Hellenism.net

Mike Dukakis feels the same way about government neglect of public transit as he does about the pile of turkey carcasses his neighbors leave him every Thanksgiving — he’s had more than enough of it.

The former Massachusetts governor and onetime Democratic presidential nominee said the recipe for a well-functioning transportation system is more rail investment and fewer freeways.

“The answer is clear in my judgment: Don’t spend any more money on highways,” Dukakis told the Boston Globe last week. “I’ve been fighting highways since the 1960s. This city would have been paved over if we let these guys do what they wanted to do. And by the time I left office, we had the best public transportation system in the country.”

He also implored neighbors to stop dropping the bone-and-flesh remnants of their Thanksgiving meals at his doorstep after the holiday — an act that became a local tradition after Dukakis was quoted in the Globe in 2015 lecturing his neighbors to make turkey soup with the excess parts instead of tossing them in the trash.

“They should use the carcass,” Dukakis said at the time, which he now regrets. “And if they don’t want to, tell them to come to 85 Perry Street in Brookline. We’ll make full use of it, believe me.”

If only his home state would listen to him on matters beyond poultry. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has argued the state’s $18-billion transportation plan adequately addresses the state’s needs even though advocates say the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority alone needs $50 billion for a serious infrastructure upgrade. Baker wants to allocate $10.1 billion for state highway construction and financing new bridges, $490 million to help towns fund road improvement projects, and only $5.7 billion for the MBTA to buy new buses, extend the Green Line, and enhance commuter rail lines.

The governor has shrugged off a Boston Globe Spotlight report on the region’s unbearable traffic problems, which found Boston-area employers incentivize driving and that implementing congestion pricing on the Mass Pike could help ease vehicle flow on rush hour. He also dismissed calls to ride mass transit more often.

“I talk to people all the time who ride the public transit system. I’m not a virtue signaler,” he told WGBH. “My job is to try to make the thing better, and given what we inherited on that thing, I’ll put our record up against any of our predecessors.”

His record hasn’t been great, but neither has his predecessors who have contributed to decades of underfunding and benign neglect.

With Boston’s severe congestion reaching a crisis point, Dukakis is urging Baker to connect the North and South stations through an underground rail link — his top infrastructure campaign — and install leaders who are capable of running a complex public organization to transform the MBTA.

“We’ve got to turn the T into a top-notch transit system and, sorry, we’ve had administration after administration not paying attention to this,” Dukakis said. “Charlie Baker is an intelligent guy. Doesn’t he understand the single most important ingredient in the quality of public services is the people you pick to run them?”

Other policies like raising tolls on highways approaching downtown Boston or charging more for commercial parking spaces could be politically unpopular, Dukakis acknowledged, which is why the state must give drivers a reason to keep their cars garaged and take trains and buses more often.

“Some people gotta drive and one of the ways you get them to support investment in public transportation is to prove to them that if you do the investment in public transportation their auto commute will be better,” he said.

The state’s leaders aren’t the only ones disappointing the former liberal lion. He thinks New England’s governors should be more focused on expanding regional rail to improve the region’s economy and give people more alternatives to travel. And the Trump administration’s lack of focus toward working with Congress on a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending bill has Dukakis ruefully admiring high-speed rail systems in Europe and Japan where transit investment is more valued.

Dukakis doesn’t need to be exerting himself by inserting himself in this debate at all. He’s 86 years old and may never see the system upgrades he’s been demanding for years. He doesn’t receive the same gravitas from the national press corps or the public the way former presidential candidates such as Bob Dole, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton did and do.

Yet Dukakis speaks regularly about the need for investment in the rail system and sits through hours-long public meetings to make his points.

“It’s inconceivable to me that we are going to deal with this congestion problem of ours without getting cracking in a hurry on a first-rate regional rail system,” Dukakis said at a MassDOT meeting a year ago.

Now that the traffic in Boston and in many other cities around the country is reaching a breaking point, perhaps it’s time we listened.

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