The case for funding public transportation

First of three parts

[Read the second part of this series, on why “reform before revenue” was the wrong answer, here, and the third part, on five transportation funding solutions, here.]

OUR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION system helps define how we think about mobility and its importance to our collective quality of life.  Public transportation is, and historically has been, a critical lifeline that gets people to jobs, students to school, seniors to health care, Amtrak travelers to South and North Stations, airline travelers to Logan, and fans to sporting events.  Public transportation triggers or supports economic growth by drawing private sector investment to places that are transit friendly.

Public transportation keeps our air cleaner, provides reasonably affordable mobility to those who cannot afford the high cost of automobile ownership in the city, and makes it easier for out-of-town visitors to navigate our capital city’s many historic, cultural, and tourism offerings. It is a critical part of our shared experience as citizens of Massachusetts, and especially as Greater Boston residents.

If you are a Red Sox fan, you have likely taken the Green Line to Fenway.  If you enjoy hockey or basketball, you have taken the Orange or Green Lines, or commuter rail, to the Garden.  You may have taken commuter rail to a football game in Foxboro to avoid the traffic.
If you are an art lover you may have taken the Green Line to the MFA and the Gardner Museum, or the Silver Line to the ICA. 

If you need health care, you may have taken the Red Line to Mass General, the Green Line to Brigham and Women’s, or the Silver or Orange Lines to Boston Medical Center or Tufts Medical Center.

If you are a student, you probably take the Green Line to Emerson College, BU, or BC, or the Red Line to MIT and Harvard.  And soon, perhaps, students will be able to take the Green Line to Tufts.

These institutions are the drivers of our regional economy.  If you add up all of the jobs, direct and indirect, that are created and sustained by each of these institutions, you will get a quick and vivid picture of how vital public transportation is to keeping our economy going.

Most of us understand that a strong economy and a higher quality of life depend in part upon our ability to provide citizens with reliable mobility and equitable transportation choices. But we may not always focus on some powerful facts.  For example, property values generally increase in areas served by quality transit.  A 2009 report for A Better City prepared by Cambridge Systematics Inc. offers this cogent explanation of how public transportation can trigger economic growth:

“The Red Line Expansion to Somerville’s Davis Square, opened in 1984, has shown how a quick and convenient subway link to Boston’s downtown can reinvigorate an inner suburban neighborhood. Located just over four miles from downtown Boston, David Square has attracted a diverse mix of restaurants, coffee shops, and cultural facilities.  Davis Square’s amenities and its accessibility also have attracted a number of software, architectural, marketing, and design firms – the types of professional services that bring high-wage jobs. According to the Somerville Assessor’s Office, the values of properties nearby the Davis Square and Porter Square Red Line stations are 24 percent higher than the city average on a cost per-square-foot basis.”

We can see the plain evidence of the importance of public transportation to development, whether it is the residential and retail development in places such as Medford, Malden, and Somerville’s Assembly Square along the Orange Line, or the explosion of growth supported by the Silver Line along Washington Street in the South End and in the Seaport District, or the massive Copley Place development served by the Orange Line and Commuter Rail.
There is also the matter of social equity. The users of public transportation tend to disproportionately be people of limited financial means – students, the poor and middle class, the elderly. These citizens need to be treated as fairly as those who drive automobiles. Our recent history sadly has witnessed the opposite. Since 1991 we have subsidized the automobile by artificially keeping the gas tax low, and spending and borrowing heavily to enlarge and improve our highway system, while we have raised T fares five times and allowed significant portions of the system to deteriorate beyond any reasonable definition of good repair.

During the past 30 years, the MBTA’s ability to establish and maintain a stable financial footing has been the subject of much discussion, many reports, and spirited citizen advocacy. Yet a variety of actions taken, and not taken, since 1991 – ranging from the decision to forward fund the T while saddling it with debt and an inadequate revenue source, to negotiating a particularly rich labor agreement during the 1998 gubernatorial election, to the inescapable high cost of maintenance of an aging system – have contributed mightily to the problem. As a result, the MBTA has found itself in a death spiral – increasing debt, increasing deterioration of essential infrastructure, increasing aging and unreliability of rolling stock, and increasing fares for a ridership that has yet to see any meaningful improvement in service for its increased payments.

The MBTA funding crisis remains, even after action to raise fares and reduce service.

State officials have been clear that there will be an even larger operating deficit in the next fiscal year.  Even worse, critical state-of-good-repair needs, which impact operational reliability and safety, remain unfunded. Important expansion projects such as the Green Line extension, the Blue Line extension to Lynn, and the Urban Ring struggle for necessary funding, imposing serious impacts on economic growth and urban air quality. The problem remains, indeed it grows, despite the hit on MBTA riders.

What is worse, as we have allowed our public transportation system to deteriorate and decline, we have heavily subsidized vehicular mobility, building hugely expensive road, tunnel, and bridge systems. We have significantly expanded the highway network, while refusing to ask motorists to pay their fair share of the costs of transportation mobility. It bears repeating: while the state gasoline tax has not increased since 1991 – a gas tax that is not indexed to inflation and that is now among the lowest in the region and the nation – MBTA fares have increased five times during that same period.  The result is a highly inequitable and unsustainable approach to funding our state transportation needs.

As citizens who love where we live, and who care deeply about the future of our city and region, we have the right to insist on a comprehensive, structural solution that is principled and fair, that distributes the pain of revenue generation across modes, and that demonstrates a high level of generational responsibility.

The often repeated approach of raising or raiding the sales tax, increasing T fares, reducing service, and refusing to introduce a fair and multi-modal approach to our transportation funding system has failed to solve the systemic problem. Each time we take these steps we seem to expect a different result. But the result is always the same: the problem is never fixed.  The good news is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or conduct yet another study to know what needs to be done. There are solutions.

As we consider our options, it is important to begin by understanding that we are at the beginning of an historic transition in the ways we power and pay for our transportation system.  Understanding and mastering this transition is critical to fashioning a funding solution that will work beyond the immediate short term, and that will position us to capture our transportation future.

As Americans, we have long been under the thrall of the automobile. The transportation planning decisions that shaped the world as we know it today were based on the myopic belief that our future lay in the promise of vehicular mobility that enabled efficient transport from suburban household to urban job, and then back again. This vision was perhaps most famously represented by the iconic GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, where the designer Norman Bel Geddes captured the pre-war imagination of a people who were prepared to move beyond the confines of their congested urban environments. Sadly, that vision became a nightmare as our addiction to the internal combustion engine – and to fossil fuels that power them – polluted our environment and drew our nation into a disastrous foreign policy that has bankrupted the nation.

In Massachusetts, we enthusiastically embraced the vision of the 1939 World’s Fair.  We have catered to and subsidized the motoring class, first by building massive metropolitan highway systems designed to accommodate vehicular mobility – systems that largely have failed to keep up with demand, costing us tens of millions of dollars annually in wasted time and fuel – and second, by subsidizing that vehicular mobility by artificially and unfairly keeping the cost of driving below its true cost as measured by its impacts on our transportation infrastructure and our environment. This approach to mobility had its signature moment in the growth of the high-tech industry along Route 128 – a snapshot in time that defined the importance of vehicular mobility as a facilitator of jobs and growth.

That transportation strategy no longer works. Our current transportation system is increasingly inadequate as a reliable provider of mobility and access, and damaging to the environment. In a state that prides itself on being a bastion of enlightened, progressive thinking and leadership, we have condoned a transportation funding system that subsidizes automobile drivers, pollutes our environment, and forces unsound land use choices. The dual problem we face – the need to improve mobility and the need to improve air quality in major urban environments – requires solutions that are, at the same time, innovative and practical.

We are witnessing the beginning of what will become a rapid movement away from fossil fuels as the principal funding source and energy source for transportation. This transition will define 21st Century mobility. One thing is clear: the status quo is not sustainable. By 2050 world population is projected to be 9 billion. If those 9 billion people live as we do today, they will use 7.6 billion vehicles using 440 million barrels of oil each day. Today, the world produces about 82 million barrels of oil per day – so the current system is simply not sustainable.

The 21st Century will, out of necessity, introduce fundamental, transformative changes to travel that will be shaped by an increasing shift away from the use of fossil fuels to hybrids and electric vehicles, supported by more sophisticated battery and power-train technology, and to enhanced public transportation systems that can reliably move large numbers of people.  As this shift occurs (and as the conventional internal combustion engine becomes more fuel efficient), the gas tax will become less and less able to fund transportation needs.  Transportation funding will increasingly come from a mostly user-fee based system – a system that, on the vehicular side, will be largely cashless and transparent, and susceptible to dynamic pricing.

This shift away from fossil fuels as a primary transportation energy source and funding source will lead to a demand for more meaningful modal choices, offering citizens practical, affordable choices as they seek access to jobs, school, health care, entertainment, and shopping.

Meet the Author

Will Massachusetts be prepared to navigate through this transition?  Will we be leaders in managing a transition to cleaner vehicles, enhanced public transportation and a truly multi-modal transportation system? Will we embrace true user fees as a part of an overall solution to our growing transportation revenue gap? Solving the T funding crisis can be a platform for enabling us to embrace this challenge and get it right – and capture the future.

James Aloisi, a former state Secretary of Transportation, is a senior vice president at KCUS Inc., a transportation consulting firm.