A roadmap for fixing the MBTA

Create new board, have state pay for RIDE, 50% of debt service

THERE’S NOTHING complicated, surprising, or even new about what ails our metro Boston public transportation system.  The task may seem daunting (it is), and the troubles may seem to be mounting (they are), and progress appears to come in slow motion (indeed it does). But none of this means it’s complicated to understand, and then fix, what is preventing the MBTA from transforming itself into a system offering consistently high-quality public transport for the residents of metro Boston.

Two decisive, highly impactful steps, which must be taken quickly for the benefit of the incoming administration, will redirect the current shambolic state of affairs and enable the MBTA to inspire public confidence and provide the transit and rail services the region needs. None of what follows is difficult to understand or accomplish. What we need now, more than ever before, is the political will to act quickly and decisively. My message to our elected officials at the State House: let’s acknowledge the factors that unambiguously contribute to the problems at the T and use the tools in the legislative toolbox that are pretty much guaranteed to set the T on the right path forward.

Step 1: Fix the Failed Governance Structures: Reorganize the MBTA board and create a new safety division in the Department of Public Safety.

The Federal Transit Administration, in its recent report, was critical of the T’s governance structure, which had both the MBTA and its safety review agency, the Department of Public Utilities, reporting to the same political leader (the governor). This problem requires resolution, but the governance problem extends far beyond this chain of command issue.

The governance structure of the T helps determine both the policy direction of the organization and the quality of the leadership it can attract. We have seen how political interference undermines confidence in the system, most notably demonstrated by reports that MBTA leadership was prevented by staff in the governor’s office from being fully transparent with the public about Blue Line derailments during a reconstruction project. This type of gubernatorial staff interference is not unique to the current administration; I can attest to it being a constant irritant when I was state transportation secretary. The problem is endemic to the behavior patterns of staff closeted in the rarified atmosphere of the governor’s office suite, and it stands in the way of progress.

Talented, strong professionals do not want or need to be micromanaged by gubernatorial staff high on transient power. Solving this requires balancing the power structure of the T board among state and municipal interests. A more inclusive board, where political power is more evenly shared, will go far in creating a governance structure that appropriately represents state and municipal interests in public transportation. Increasingly, municipalities are being required to act (and spend their limited financial resources) in order to improve transit service delivery, notably in connection with urban bus services and first/last mile solutions across the system. The recent Orange Line shutdown could not possibly have taken place without substantial levels of engagement, effort, and expenditure by Boston and other impacted cities.

The MBTA will thrive if it has more board-level municipal input and direction. A shared power structure will make T operations less political and industry professionals will be more attracted to work here.  I propose a new board of seven members, with three gubernatorial appointees and three municipal positions: one from Boston, and two chosen by the MBTA Advisory Board, one of which must be a commuter rail municipality. The municipal appointees should be the mayor (or comparable elected official) or their chosen designee. The state transportation secretary would be the seventh member ex officio, as well as board chair, and the secretary would only have the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. In this way the incoming governor retains nominal control over the board, but the power balance is shared with engaged municipalities.

There is a second governance issue the Legislature needs to address, and that is the designation of a proper state safety oversight agency for the Commonwealth. The Department of Public Utilities is the wrong agency in which to vest this important responsibility, and the FTA’s safety review reveals that the agency has failed to appropriately perform its  duties. I propose that the Legislature create a new entity following from national best practices in other jurisdictions. One idea might be to create a division within the Department of Public Safety that is properly funded to attract and retain qualified transit and rail safety personnel.

Step 2: Provide a new source of dedicated, stable, permanent funding for MBTA and regional transit authority operating budgets.

The fundamental inadequacy of the MBTA’s operating budget, a budget that is chronically in shortfall, prevents it from attracting and hiring sufficient numbers of personnel across divisions, and it prevents the agency from performing essential repair and maintenance services and delivering service at a frequency and quality befitting a first rate transit and rail system.

The Legislature and governor repeatedly point to their ramped up capital spending over the past seven years, but the FTA report makes clear what I and many other advocates have been saying now for a while: the real issue, still unaddressed, is the level of stable funding for operating expenses.

There are many reasons why the MBTA operating budget is consistently inadequate and unable to meet basic needs, but two stick out as the most egregious and resolvable: 1) too heavy a reliance on fare revenues, and 2) burdensome obligations to pay for services and activities that should be borne by the Commonwealth, not the T.

Ridership levels on the T plummeted after COVID took hold of our lives in March 2020. This had a massive impact on agency operating funding because the MBTA was relying on fares for a little over one third of its operating budget. One third of all fares came from commuter rail fares. This heavy reliance on fare revenues is no longer tenable.

The gradual recovery from the pandemic has seen ridership increase, but it has plateaued to about 60 percent (across all modes) of pre-pandemic levels. There is no indication that ridership will sharply or quickly increase in the near term, particularly as many employees settle into new workplace settings. The T, like other US transit agencies, has been insulated from these pandemic effects by massive injections of federal relief aid. That money is running out, and no additional federal operating assistance is on offer.

Where will the new funding for operating expenses come from? Some people may hope that the answer lies in the enactment of the Fair Share Amendment, Question 1 on the general election ballot. That simply is not the case. We cannot expect, or wait for, any Fair Share revenue to save the day for transit operating budgets. I suspect that the measure will provide some new funding for a variety of transportation needs, perhaps as security for bond authorizations, and that is a good thing. But it is not a substitute for a new, stable and permanent dedicated revenue source for transit operating expenses.

Obviously, finding that new revenue source is not politically “simple.” I am not naïve about the legislative process. However, there are a few relatively painless steps the Legislature can take that provide the T with quick, significant operational revenue relief without having to raise taxes, fares, or fees on anyone. These steps would be a good way to begin the process of reforming and properly funding transit operating budgets – not just for the MBTA but for every regional transit authority as well.

If the Commonwealth assumes the full costs of paratransit and 50 percent of all debt service for the T (and indeed, for all regional transit authorities), it would be freeing up substantial operating revenues that can be directed toward hiring, training, and maintenance.

For the MBTA, taking these two steps would be the equivalent of providing it about $350 million each year to hire and train personnel and perform critical routine maintenance and good repair activities. That may not in itself be enough, but it is a good way to start. The T desperately needs to accelerate the hiring of trained management professionals, bus drivers, and control center dispatchers, conduct an accelerated repair and maintenance program, and support municipal efforts to elevate the bus transit experience. None of this is possible without a properly funded operating budget.

At the same time, the Legislature can take other actions to increase revenue in the short term. One short-term action should be to set a fee for all home delivery services in the Commonwealth. The explosion of home delivery of everything imaginable, including food, has substantially increased the burdens of auto mobility, increasing traffic congestion especially in cities, and increasing carbon and particulate emissions. These negative impacts ought to be assessed and the funding used to support transit and sustainable mobility statewide. Charges could be allowed at both the state and municipal levels, enabling cities and towns to have funding to support Complete Streets and related initiatives.

The Legislature needs to work with the governor taking office in January to move quickly past the current failed status quo. Doing that requires decisive action on a new MBTA governance structure and on steps that will support operating budget adequacy and stability. I have outlined here specific ways to do this, and I ask our elected decision makers to engage this as a matter of time-sensitive urgency.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board.