Senate T vote is cause for optimism

Legislature must still address MBTA funding issues

I’M A PESSIMIST BY NATURE, which has proven to be a generally good trait because it means that I’m rarely disappointed.  Today, however, I’ve allowed myself to lapse into a feeling of optimism.  My rosy outlook arises from how the Massachusetts Senate responded to the Baker administration’s proposal to “fix” the MBTA.  There is now a fighting chance that political leaders can craft a smart, consensus-based approach to restoring the MBTA.

What happened to make me feel optimistic? For starters, the Senate adopted budget language that establishes a potentially strong platform for a constructive outcome. The Senate did not bow to pressure, herd mentality, conventional wisdom, or the Globe editorial board. Instead it carved out what I read as a smart and strategic approach that offers the governor a victory but does not abandon the principles of equity and reinvestment that ought always to be at the core of public transportation policy.

First, the Senate maintained the cap on MBTA fares – a crucial step toward keeping fares affordable and ensuring an equitable, egalitarian public transportation system. This is more than an equity issue – it goes to the very core of how we rebuild a public transportation system that is used by riders who take it both by necessity and by choice.

Second, the Senate did not support proposed cuts to transport funding that were agreed to in 2013. The cuts that were proposed exceed a half billion dollars through 2020, and although that funding was always subject to appropriation, it was embedded into the General Laws of the Commonwealth as part of an overall deal to raise the gas tax and MBTA fares. As such, that funding is enshrined in law as, at the very least, a moral obligation that should not be lightly turned away from. The larger question is how anyone can credibly believe that the way to solve our chronic transit disinvestment is to reduce anticipated spending.

Third, the Senate proposed what is basically a “subcommittee plus” of the current MassDOT Board as a new “fiscal control board,” thus adopting a hybrid approach similar to what many of us have called for. While I continue to believe such an additional board is unnecessary – and will ultimately prove to be a bureaucratic drag on getting things done – the Senate has offered up a palatable compromise that people like me can support.

Fourth, the Senate did not undermine the Pacheco law.  As I have said, repeal of the Pacheco law is an ideological battle, and its mostly about union busting.  There is no evidence that the Pacheco law has been a barrier to a single proposal for a public private partnership or other privatization scheme that was in the best public interest. To the contrary, 12 of 15 MBTA requests for private contracts were approved since the law took effect, thus disproving the law’s so-called chilling effect.

Fifth, the Senate has addressed these issues in a way that can lead to a more thoughtful and informed discussion about management rights, MBTA procurement policies, and public-private partnerships. Those issues are legitimate and important, but they are not related to the repeal of the Pacheco law. I may write separately about this, but for now let me say: I believe that one important outcome of this debate ought to be setting up teams to focus with intensity on revising current law to improve the T’s ability to enforce tough, appropriate work rules, streamline MBTA procurement, and replace the current flawed public private partnership law to reflect national best practices, which today it decidedly does not.

There is a lot missing from this equation, not least the kind of significant net new revenue that is an unavoidable necessity if we are going to make a serious dent in the MBTA’s $6 billion-plus state of good repair backlog.  That money can only come from dramatic steps, and there are at least two that I have previously called for – debt relief for the T and shifting highway dollars to transit – that do not require any tax, fare, or fee increase.  We have been focusing too much, once again, only on reform, and not nearly enough on revenue.  Its time now to shift focus, as we are approaching the mid-year point without any credible plan to raise the kind of money needed to begin a long overdue, large scale reinvestment in our public transportation system.

As I bask in my unaccustomed optimism, I have many hopes.

Meet the Author

I hope that my optimism is proven justified.  I hope that I am reading the political tea leaves correctly.  And I hope that those who share my view of modal equity and fairness will rise to offer strong public support for the development of a final resolution that adheres to the Senate’s overall framework and provides the governor with the tools he needs to get the job done.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.