CommonWealth Magazine | By James Aloisi | Wednesday, April, 8, 2015
IN THE AFTERMATH of the drip drip drip of a series of strategically placed leaks, the governor’s special commission on the MBTA has finally issued its report. It is a disappointing document that fails to address the MBTA’s real state-of-good-repair and capacity needs, fails to establish a platform for true modal equity, and fails to embrace 21st century mobility paradigms. It is a historic missed opportunity.
To be fair, let’s start with five areas where I agree with the commission: the T’s management structure needs to be restructured; workplace practices must be reformed; chronically bottlenecked project delivery needs to be turned around and made more efficient; the bad practice of paying employees using borrowed capital dollars must end; and chronic capital underinvestment must stop. The commission also recognizes that the MBTA’s state of good repair backlog is enormous – probably in excess of $6.7 billion. There’s a lot of common ground there.
Unfortunately, the commission takes a “reform before revenue” and “punish the T rider” approach to resolving these issues. The report is designed to derail any meaningful effort to inject net new revenue into our public transportation system. Instead of asking us to eat our peas, it offers up a luscious menu of desserts for the advocates of retrenchment. By highlighting issues like absenteeism, it distracts from the real issues. By making easily misunderstood claims about unspent capital authority, it suggests wrongly that no net new revenue is needed and ignores the real threat of the MBTA’s incapacitating debt load. By making misleading claims about fare box recovery, it feeds the narrative that MBTA fares are not as high as they need to be.
Let’s keep a few facts in mind in order to maintain perspective on this critical mobility issue:
- The MBTA has $5.5 billion in debt and its short term annual debt service payments are fixed. They amount to about $450 million a year.
- The cost of the commuter rail contract is also fixed, and costs over $300 million annually.
- The cost of the RIDE is fixed, and costs $100 million annually.
- The MBTA’s state-of-good-repair needs are now pegged at $6.7 billion by the current administration, and the commission thinks that number is the floor not the ceiling.
- We cannot expect the T to pay for its fixed costs as well as accelerate its critical state-of-good-repair needs simply through reform or higher fares. It isn’t possible.
- The MBTA is not resilient and is over capacity. The capacity issue is especially urgent at critical points along the system, including the three innovation districts that are generating high jobs growth: the Seaport district, Kendall Square, and Longwood.
- The MBTA did not leave $2.2 billion of cash unspent. This is untapped bonding authority, not free cash.
- Fare box recovery on the MBTA is actually on par with national averages. In fact, fare box recovery for the light rail system (Green Line) is substantially higher than the national average. The Frontier Group has done solid work demonstrating this. The commission’s fare box recovery numbers are flat-out misleading and do not present apple-to-apples comparisons.
- The MBTA has not engaged in a profligate expansion program. Its expansions – the Green Line to Tufts, the Silver Line to the Seaport District, commuter rail to Worcester – are all critical to the health of our regional economy and support jobs growth, reduce traffic congestion, lead to a cleaner environment, and support social justice.
- The MBTA’s proposed expansions – Silver Line to Chelsea, connecting the Red and Blue lines, West Station in Allston – are also critical to both economic growth and social justice.
I have never advocated throwing money at the T as a way to solve its problems. Nor have I turned a blind eye to the urgent need to restore public confidence in the T’s internal management practices. But we face a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-pronged solution set. So let’s be clear about a few things.
First, the MBTA needs a new governance structure and stronger management that establishes transparent performance metrics and is held to those metrics. That new management should attack every avenue of internal reform and change, because we all expect a highly efficient, motivated, and functioning MBTA. The first thing they should do is stop paying for operating costs with capital dollars. This bad practice, which took firm root during the Romney administration, is something many people have been drawing attention to for a long time. I tried to solve it as transportation secretary in 2009 when I asked for a 19-cent gas tax increase, and committed to put 3 cents of that increase toward eliminating this bad practice. The Legislature at that time said no, embracing “reform without revenue” and tacitly approving this shell game. Ending it is long overdue. The commission’s firewall recommendation is spot-on.
Second, two issues – resiliency and capacity – need to be treated as equally important and urgent. That means attacking state-of-good-repair backlog in an aggressive manner and on an accelerated pace. It also means going forward with strategic expansions of the system. There is not a nickel of meaningful net new revenue in the commission proposal, so neither of these is likely to occur under the commission’s recommendations.
Third, none of this is possible without substantial net new revenue for the MBTA. I support Gov. Baker’s desire to accomplish this without raising taxes. I have offered two ways to do this as serious solutions to a serious problem: shift a large portion of MBTA debt to the Commonwealth, and flex highway dollars to transit. These strategies will free up $300 million annually (for both operating and capital needs) and enable the kind of restoration of the T that we all know is necessary, without raising taxes, fees, or fares. The commission offers no credible solution to dealing effectively with the admitted $6.7 billion state-of-good-repair backlog. What we need is an effective solution set that enables an accelerated transit improvement program. What we got was another round of kicking the can.
Fourth, a policy of reform and retrenchment – which is what the commission is offering up – turns its back on the clear and unambiguous changing mobility preferences of our times. We are threatening future jobs growth and private sector investment when we fail to take bold, effective, and prompt action to create a first-rate public transit system. We are moving away from an auto-centric era. Cities like Boston and Cambridge and Somerville must offer 21st century quality of life, including reliable mobility options, or face the threat of gradual disinvestment and decline.
Fifth, asking T riders to pay more for bad service – which is implied in the commission’s misleading data on fare box recovery – is ineffective policy and morally wrong. The commission report tosses cold water on efforts to level the modal playing field and shift funding emphasis from highways to transit. Our future, including our commitment to jobs growth and clean air and social justice, are all at stake if we do not take this opportunity moment to reverse our auto-centric approach to mobility. How can we ask those who can least afford it to pay more for lousy service, just months after a historic meltdown and after voters rejected a simple inflation adjustment to the gas tax? Where are our values?
I’d ask every reader: what are we doing? What are we thinking?
Does anyone really believe that the T’s $6.7 billion state-of-good-repair needs, and its need to strategically expand, can be solved by reforming absenteeism policies? By raising fares again? By stopping necessary growth of the system? By asking the T to issue more debt? By increasing advertising revenue? By leveraging scattered real estate parcels for one-time pay days? Well, that is the prescription that appears to be offered up by the MBTA commission. It flies in the face of reality. It ignores the changing mobility paradigms of our times. It turns away from modal funding justice and social equity. It won’t work to solve the two critical issues that must be solved – resilience and capacity. And the cycle of decline will inevitably continue.
James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.