Baker must step up on transportation crisis

‘We don’t need more money’ mantra has to go

LET ME TELL YOU a story about political leadership.

The year is 1969, and Illinois has a new Republican governor, Richard B. Ogilvie. Ogilvie took office knowing that the state was in a fiscal crisis, and he recruited a group of talented people to help him figure out how to keep the state from going bankrupt. He was advised by his staff that the state had to pass an income tax, as Illinois was the last large state in the nation without one.

Ogilvie had been elected with 51 percent of the vote. He had every political reason to be wary of such advice, but he knew it was good advice and he acted. He didn’t blink. The income tax passed and a massive fiscal crisis that would have had negative implications for decades to come was avoided. In a tribute to Ogilvie on the 50th anniversary of his election as governor last year, George Ranney, his former deputy budget director, observed that the income tax “enabled organizational reforms that have lasted to this day: Illinois established the first state Environmental Protection Board in the country. The Department of Corrections was entirely revamped . . . Ogilvie used the Bureau of the Budget, the first of his new agencies, to make the rest cost-effective and innovative.” The fabled Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote, “Ogilvie built one of the nation’s finest state governments; he was the best man in Illinois government, maybe the best governor in the country.”

Ogilvie lost his campaign for reelection, receiving 49 percent in another close election. A few years later, he was invited to speak to the Institute of Politics at Harvard. At the conclusion of his remarks he took questions. One of the students stood up and said, “Governor, you were almost reelected. If you hadn’t passed the income tax, you almost certainly would have had another term. Have you ever regretted the income tax decision?” Ogilvie paused for a second and said, “Son, I didn’t run for governor to get reelected. I ran to do what had to be done.” The entire room stood up and applauded.

I’m telling you this story because political courage is rare, but necessary, if we are going to improve our quality of life and build the kind of future we want for ourselves and the generations that follow us.  Political leadership is one essential, vital quality that must be present in order to advance and implement a policy agenda that serves the needs and responds to the values of the public. Such leadership goes beyond ideology, partisanship, and self-interest. It is the kind of leadership that cares less about re-election and more about doing what’s right; it rises to the occasion when the times are tough.

The response to the recent MBTA Red Line derailment has ranged from the spectacular to the spectacularly disappointing. The spectacular is embodied by the rapid response of T staff and employees who triaged a massively disruptive problem.  General Manager Steve Poftak and his highly regarded deputy, Jeffrey Gonneville, put a recovery plan into place quickly and effectively.

While the work continues and the daily slowdowns remain a matter of significant daily inconvenience and disruption to thousands of people, the MBTA has responded to the derailment with the singular focus and seriousness everyone would expect.  The MBTA’s communications staff has been revitalized by new leadership and staff, and it shows – the communications across the board have been much improved and helpful to riders.

Communications is a key element of customer service and the new team at the T is getting it right. The Fiscal Management and Control Board also stepped up, taking the initiative to direct a truly independent operations and safety review of the T.  FMCB chair Joe Aiello made a commitment to “urgency and transparency,” and he and vice chair Monica Tibbetts-Nutt will be leading the effort to bring in operations and safety experts to advise the T on national and global best practices.

If there has been a big disappointment in all of this it has come from the very top. The week after the derailment we had the governor and his transportation secretary assuring everyone who would listen that there’s enough money available for the repair and modernization program the system obviously needs. This “we don’t need more money” mantra continues despite the clear and acknowledged inability of the T to get more work out the door – largely a failure of insufficient resources that only additional revenue will provide.

More to the point, even the $8-9 billion available for repair and modernization over the coming five years is not enough to get the job done at either the pace or the scale necessary. Getting our public transportation system to a condition where it can properly support our economy and overall society means an investment in repair, modernization, and strategic connectivity projects on a schedule and at a scale well beyond current thinking. This isn’t hyperbole. That’s how you get out of a crisis. This transportation crisis is not the sole fault of the current administration; this failure has been decades in the making and bipartisan in nature.  But it is the responsibility of this administration as the current caretakers of the public interest to act decisively in a manner that matches the need.

It’s important to say a word about the MBTA’s budget. The current operating budget “gap” was manufactured by shifting state funds originally designated to support operating costs to the capital budget.  The T justifies this revenue transfer as a way to boost capital spending.  At the same time, the T acknowledges that they do not have sufficient operating capacity to hire the talent and resources to push out more work quickly and oversee complicated procurement and capital building projects. Thus the T is underspending on capital even against its own declared targets. This is what’s known as a conundrum of one’s own making.

The MBTA can’t hire and retain the people it needs – people who can be lured out of the private sector to support today’s initiatives while contributing to our institutional knowledge of how to oversee capital projects and procurement of modern equipment – without strong human resources and competitive hiring practices, including competitive salaries (exactly what the T did when it restored the Green Line Extension project). The money to support this comes from the operating budget.

Operating budgets don’t just support the resources you need to perform critical repair and modernization work; they also pay for routine maintenance, the kind of thing that ensures the system runs reliably on a daily basis. Operating budget discipline is a good thing; operating budget frugality for frugality’s sake is not. If we never have enough money on the operating side, then we’ll never be able to spend what we need to spend on the capital side, and the cycle of inadequate investment will continue.

Most knowledgeable observers believe that the current path the T is on will hit a wall in fiscal years 2021/2022 and there’s no credible plan for how to deal with that day. The MBTA itself essentially admitted as much in a required filing with the Federal Transit Administration, showing a long-term forecast on funding sources for capital spending with significant shortfalls beginning in FY2021. Leadership has downplayed the meaning of this forecast, but without net new revenue the options faced by the T at that time won’t be pretty.  If the agency has to resort to additional borrowing, it will only place a new burden of higher debt service costs on the operating budget.

The failure to candidly acknowledge the need for net new revenue isn’t the worst of it. Faced with a public uproar over the recent Red Line derailment, the governor continues to use an old, divisive narrative in his effort to justify not raising net new revenue.  He recently repeated a statement he has made before, that millions of Massachusetts residents pay for half of public transportation but don’t use it. He’s said this before – “Let’s not forget that the taxpayers who never ride the system write a check every year for over $1 billion to the MBTA,” he told a State House news conference earlier this year.  Under that theory, I should be upset because my tax dollars support the hundreds of roads across Massachusetts that I never use. It is, on its face, a preposterous statement.  But it has a hold on many drivers who somehow think that we are subsidizing transit at their expense, when in fact we are subsidizing driving to an even larger degree.

There was a time in America when a Republican governor in a large industrial state understood the importance of instituting an income tax.  He had just been elected by a thin margin, by the skin of his teeth, but he believed he wasn’t in office to win re-election.  He was there to get the job done and done right.  Unlike governor Ogilvie, Gov. Charlie Baker won re-election with a near historic landslide margin. He is immensely popular and he is recognized as a smart and capable fellow.  I can say from modest personal experience that he is also a nice person with good personal instincts – no small matter when it comes to political figures. For these reasons, I’d like to think we can move past stale, divisive narratives and toward a candid acknowledgment of the scope of our transportation crisis.

It is a crisis made manifest daily, in the chronic traffic congestion that is the worst in the nation; the inadequate and failing commuter rail system based on a service delivery model that fails to offer all-day reliability and depends on inefficient, expensive, and highly polluting diesel locomotives; a subway system that lacks essential reliability and connectivity; and a bus system that needs a massive refresh.

The crisis extends to other elements of the system, hobbled by insufficient revenue and operating budget limitations. When the ceiling of the Logan Airport Blue Line station remains a mess of peeling paint, it sends a message to everyone, including visitors to our region, that we lack the self-respect and vision to maintain high quality public infrastructure. When the T runs one-car green line trains on Sunday, the unacceptably packed trains discourage weekend ridership (the very thing that’s declining) and makes riders wonder why they’ve chosen transit to reach their destinations.

Meet the Author

A highly functioning transit and rail system is good for the economy. In its 2018 report, The Transportation Dividend, the business advocacy group A Better City pointed out that our transit and rail system, even in its current inadequate condition, provides over $11.4 billion in economic benefits to the metro Boston region – benefits that are credibly quantified as approaching $6,700 per household each year.  We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a new course for metro Boston – a path to a stronger, durable economy supported by a highly functioning, egalitarian transit and rail system. We won’t get there if we remain stuck in, or if we passively accept, stale 20th century narratives and metrics that no longer serve our needs or respond to our values.  We can hope for political courage and leadership, or we can act. It’s up to us to make the most of this moment and insist on nothing less than transformative, accelerated change in how we move people throughout the metro Boston region.

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation, a principal in Trimount Consulting, and a member of the TransitMatters board.