Jacob Fridman is the president of Tufts New Liberals.
Massachusetts has a new governor: Maura Healey, who was sworn in earlier this month as the first elected female governor of the state and the first openly lesbian governor in the country. With her governorship, Democrats now have a unified state government for the first time in eight years, as her predecessor, Republican Charlie Baker, opted not to run for a third term. This is a clear opportunity for change on multiple fronts, and as New Liberals, we are excited about her administration getting to work on the top issues facing Massachusetts.
One issue near and dear to us as Tufts students is housing. We hear it all the time in the news and in our day-to-day lives; whether it’s rising rents in Somerville displacing working families or the many upperclassmen who struggle to find and pay for off-campus housing. As part of her ‘housing first’ approach to prioritize housing and bolster economic development, Healey’s plan involves creating a more efficient government procedure for developing housing and ramping up funding for several initiatives using federal funding from the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act. Her most well-known promise is to create a designated Cabinet position for the issue that is separate from the Secretary of Economic Development, ensuring greater coordination between state government agencies.
Another other issue we know all too well is transportation. The brand-new Medford/Tufts Green Line station has faced a service interruption after running for less than a month. Healey’s plan to fix the T starts with reforming the MBTA. This includes appointing a dedicated safety chief and commissioning a safety audit, hiring more safety personnel and speeding up currently delayed maintenance projects. On the broader matter of public transportation, the new administration’s agenda involves an interagency task force to get federal funding for projects, a major expansion of the commuter rail system, including the proposed East-West Passenger Rail spanning the length of the commonwealth and the electrification of all modes of public transportation by 2040.
While these are all great initiatives, there is a major institutional barrier to giving Massachusetts more housing and transportation options. The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act mandate reviews of infrastructure projects under an environmental lens. This sounds like a net benefit for combating climate change, but this process can be dragged out for years and has played a major part in delaying crucial investments in housing, public transportation and other climate initiatives, such as Minneapolis, Minn.’s ban on single-family zoning, California’s high speed rail initiative and a proposed wind farm just off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
We fear that prolonged scrutiny would hamper the progress of any zoning reform and Massachusetts rail expansion, especially any changes to the T and the creation of the ambitious East-West Passenger Rail project. While environmental regulations are vital to a zero-carbon future, the specific review periods mandated by MEPA and NEPA go overboard in sacrificing many beneficial infrastructure projects while trying to stop the shrinking number of coal, oil and natural gas-emitting proposals submitted. Therefore, we suggest that the governor push for major reform to the state-level MEPA that isalong the lines of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s plans for NEPA. While the item died in the Senate, it would have offered significant changes to allow the proliferation of green projects, even though some natural gas and oil projects would be approved as well. The idea was to cap how long reviews can take and have the president choose a number of projects to be prioritized for review. Gov. Healey wants to prioritize housing permitting reform, so MEPA reform like Manchin’s proposal is reasonable.
If these ideas sound interesting to you, then join the New Liberals, a nationwide grassroots movement fighting for pragmatic progressive policies and values. The Tufts chapter is pushing for this idea and many more like it across Tufts’ campus and in the Medford/Somerville area with education campaigns and by lobbying city councils.