Time to pop this trial balloon

T commission urges reforms, no new revenue

I KNOW SOMETHING about trial balloons. I launched a few myself when I was state transportation secretary. It’s a tried and true way for public officials to test whether there will be any meaningful push back to a decision before the decision is actually made. If the trial balloon gets clear sailing, then the decision is good to go.  If, however, the balloon experiences a bumpy ride, it may cause officials to reconsider their approach.

Following in this tradition, the commission appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to report on solutions to the MBTA’s poor service performance and recent winter meltdown leaked a draft of its report to the Boston Globe. They clearly wanted to test whether MBTA riders and advocates will be quiescent and accept another painful dose of reform without revenue as the solution to the MBTA’s chronic problems. If there isn’t a hearty push back to the reform before revenue nonsense, then we can expect another decade of disinvestment and decline and we can say goodbye to our aspirations for a better future.

Let’s be clear: no one, myself included, is saying that the MBTA doesn’t need to significantly step up its game.  We’d all embrace new MBTA leadership that is driven by strong metrics and performance, that finds creative ways to reduce operational costs while improving efficiencies, and that leverages technology to improve service quality and reliability. Let’s stipulate to that.  But let’s also be realistic about the need for significant net new revenue.  You cannot accelerate state-of-good repair needs without more money.  Those needs, estimated at $3 billion in 2009 and more recently estimated by the current administration at $6 billion, cannot be met without significant net new revenue.

Squeezing money out of operational and maintenance efficiencies is a good thing, but it is literally playing at the margins when it comes to the T’s real needs. If you add to this the necessity to continue to strategically expand T service – the Silver Line to Chelsea, Bus Rapid Transit across Greater Boston, connecting the Blue and Red Lines, West Station in Allston – then you can see how a “reform before revenue” approach simply doesn’t meet our needs.

What’s worse, it appears that the commission is getting its basic facts wrong. According to the Globe report, the commission is about to report that  “passenger fares cover a relatively small share of the MBTA’s operating expenses — 39 percent — compared with cities such as Chicago (44 percent), San Francisco (76 percent), and London (90 percent for its subway system alone).”  These comparisons don’t stand scrutiny.  Take San Francisco and the Bay Area as an example. BART, the regional rail system, may have a high fare box recovery rate (about 65 percent), but MUNI, the downtown bus and train system, has a 31 percent recovery rate and ACTransit (the Bay Area’s Oakland based public transit system) only 18 percent.  BART, with the highest rate, doesn’t run a bus system. It is a rail-only system with a very different fare structure from the MBTA.

The Chicago figures don’t appear to include its suburban bus system, PACE, which has an 11 percent fare box recovery.  (These are approximate numbers based on the National Transit Database). London’s bus system is highly subsidized by net revenues from its cordon pricing system – charging auto drivers a fee once they enter the city center. We don’t have anything like that here. So the commission’s own numbers do not appear to offer a true apple-to-apples comparison.  How can decisions be made based on such data?

Also, according to the Globe, the commission will call for a crackdown on fare evasion.  First, from everything I know, only about 3 percent of T riders evade fares.  How much can you recover – and at what cost – by going after that 3 percent?  More to the point: if you want to establish a proper Bus Rapid Transit network where fares are paid before boarding, you might reduce fare evasion, but implementing BRT requires a commitment to spend money on strategic expansions.  You cannot have it both ways.

If the draft report leaked to the Globe is accurate, the commission is preparing to offer up more fare increases, no new investment of any meaningful scale, and an era of retrenchment. It’s a starvation diet with a hair shirt thrown in – punishing T riders and not solving the problem.

Greater Boston better enjoy its current tech and innovation boom because it won’t last very long if we let our public transportation system remain mired in neglect. The younger creative class – the people who want a multi-modal mobility platform, who expect a reliable and interactive MBTA, who want late night service – these people won’t want to live and work in a place that can’t respond to their mobility preferences. Why take a 21st century innovation job here when you can do so in transit-friendly places like Portland, Oregon, or San Francisco, where the weather is better and the quality of life at least equal or better?

In a competitive world, cities need to offer differentiators to attract and keep business, investment, and jobs. I fear that our public transportation system will become our defining differentiator – and not for the good.

And what of the impacts on the poor and middle class?  The T riders who take the bus and subway by necessity and not choice should not be asked to bear another round of fare increases without a commitment to true funding equity.  In what rational world are people expected to pay more for bad service? Will we respond to growing income inequality by raising fares on those least able to afford it?   We have raised T fares consistently on a regular basis since the 1990s. In all of that time we have raised the gas tax once, and on such a modest scale as to be insignificant.  We have rejected adjusting the gas tax to inflation, but we continue to raise T fares with impunity.  Is this going to be an era of modal equity and justice, or are we returning to the failed auto-centric approaches of the mid-2oth century?

If the final report looks anything like what was leaked to the Globe, then it will be a colossal missed opportunity. Yes, the MBTA may limp along through one or more harsh winters, but the opportunity to introduce meaningful structural change will be missed.  We need to push a restart button; instead, it appears that the commission is ready to push the rewind button, revisiting failed policies of the past and expecting them to provide better outcomes.

We have an opportunity to embrace modal funding equity, and build a new MBTA that is vastly different, more reliable, and better prepared to respond to emerging 21st century mobility paradigms. If we let this moment pass and enter another era of retrenchment, this generation will have the dubious distinction of inaugurating a new era of inertia and decline. We’ve been there before, in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn’t pretty.  Let’s not be so blinded by hubris that we think it can’t happen again.

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

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