Rosenberg sees transportation disconnect
People want strong T but not willing to pay for it
SENATE PRESIDENT STANLEY ROSENBERG said on Tuesday that the problems at the MBTA are straight out of “Democracy in America,” the book Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1800s which suggested that Americans may vote themselves more benefits than they are willing to pay for.
“This is de Tocqueville writ large,” Rosenberg said in a meeting with reporters at his State House office. “That’s the America we live in. We want excellent public services. We expect our government to work efficiently and effectively, but at the same time we’re not willing to invest the resources where needed.”
With his remarks, Rosenberg staked out a different position from the two other members of the Big Three on Beacon Hill. House Speaker Robert DeLeo is promising reforms and personnel changes but pledging no new revenues for the T. Gov. Charlie Baker is opposed to raising taxes, but wants to put off the discussion of long-term solutions to the MBTA’s problems until the current crisis eases.
Baker and MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott seem to be working better together. After sniping at each other last week, the two officials on Tuesday sounded as if they now are on the same team. Scott praised Baker for delivering state resources to help the T dig out, especially a personal call the governor made to Peter Pan Bus Lines, which resulted in 42 buses to ferry passengers along the shutdown Red Line between Braintree and JFK/UMass.
But there are still clearly some kinks in the Scott-Baker relationship. Scott on Monday night said it might take 30 days before full T service is restored. Baker said on Tuesday that he hadn’t been told about the 30-day forecast before Scott made it. “I think we need to be faster than that, but I don’t want anybody overpromising and under-delivering here,” he said. Scott seem to back away from the 30-day estimate late Tuesday, saying she hopes to restore full service as quickly as possible. “It’s like a war and we’re taking this back station by station, line by line,” she said.
Scott said the cash-strapped T was even giving some consideration to issuing refunds to passengers who have been left stranded by the transit agency. “It’s something we’re mulling over,” she said.
While Baker and Scott struggle with the here and now, Rosenberg sat down with reporters in his office to talk about his effort to change legislative rules to give the Senate more control over bills filed by senators and a new initiative to promote welfare-to-work programs. Reporters, however, wanted to know where he stood on the MBTA’s problems and what should be done about them.
The Senate president said an extraordinarily tough winter and a “history of neglect” have created the current crisis. He said once winter ebbs, the system should return to what it was before, which he described as “basically functional.” While he favored greater state investment in transportation infrastructure, Rosenberg acknowledged Massachusetts residents may not be convinced yet.
“People don’t want to pay higher fares. People don’t want to pay higher taxes,” he said. “People want more trains to run more frequently, faster, and more reliably. That is an equation, that any scientist will tell you, that adds up to a big problem.”
Asked if state officials were still grappling with the “reform before revenue” phrase that stalled the push for new transportation revenues in 2009, Rosenberg said: “Always, that’s what the public wants.”
Rosenberg said T management is a problem. “I feel that the system that we put in place, that was supposed to transfer to more modern practices, was not adequately executed. So part of it is management, and part of it is underfunding,” he said.
“The unending appetite to expand public transit, for good reason, basically has resulted in us building as system that is inadequately supported both for its size and its age. And there’s significant demand for more,” he said, specifically mentioning commuter rail and rail to western Massachusetts, the area of the state that he represents.Rosenberg tied the debate over transportation funding into concerns about income inequality in Massachusetts and across the country. He said 80 percent of people today have incomes that are stagnant, dropping, or below the poverty line, while the vast majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small cross-section of the population. He said those eking out a living are not interested in putting money into transportation infrastructure or other government initiatives.
“That paradigm has to be shifted,” he said. “That paradigm is what’s paralyzing us.”