The Codcast: Salvucci traces decline of T to Weld administration

Fred Salvucci, one of the state’s most influential transportation officials, traces the decline of the MBTA to the early years of the administration of former governor William Weld.

Salvucci, who served 12 years as secretary of transportation under former governor Michael Dukakis and now teaches at MIT, said support for transit gained momentum after former governor Frank Sargent in the early 1970s brought a halt to new highway construction inside Route 128. Under Dukakis, Salvucci said, transportation officials turned their focus to extending the Red Line to Alewife, expanding the Orange Line, and burying the expressway through downtown, a project that came to be known as the Big Dig.

Throughout the 1980s, according to Salvucci, the MBTA built complicated transit projects and managed the system well. He said the successes were important. “If we had just succeeded in stopping bad things and not succeeded in getting some good things built, the bad things would have just come back,” Salvucci said during a Codcast hosted by Josh Fairchild and Jim Aloisi of TransitMatters.

But the momentum that built up during the 1980s dissipated in the 1990s during the administration of Weld, Salvucci said. Part of the problem was the Big Dig, which sucked up a lot of the state’s money and attention. But Salvucci said the Weld administration had a split personality when it came to transit.

Environmental officials in the Weld administration pressed for a number of transit commitments as part of the Big Dig, including the Green Line extension to Somerville, new equipment on the Orange Line, and a connection between the Red and Blue Lines. But Salvucci said there was little follow-through by state transportation officials, who in their minds were still hoping new highways would get built. “Weld, his government was almost schizophrenic,” Salvucci said.

The result was a transit agency that increasingly lacked the competency to execute on big projects and the resources to run the system effectively. Salvucci said the forward funding of the T in 2000, which was intended to get the agency back on track financially, was based on phony numbers. The T was promised a fifth of the revenue from the state’s sales tax, but the resources generated from the funding scheme turned out to be inadequate, prompting the T to borrow more and more money. “It was a totally flawed statute,” Salvucci said.

The deteriorating state of the MBTA was symbolized by the Green Line extension project. Not only was the project long overdue, but the initial design ran more than $1 billion over budget. Many blame poor oversight of the construction and design team as the cause.

Salvucci said the resuscitation of the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford gives him a lot of hope about the T’s future. He said T officials responded by paring back the cost of the project significantly and by installing a seasoned manager, John Dalton, to oversee it. He said he has also been encouraged by the commitment of Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, to the transit agency.

Resurrecting the Green Line extension not only makes good on a state environmental promise, it also demonstrates the T is getting back on track, Salvucci said. “The Green Line extension is beginning to rebuild that kind of competence at the agency,” he said.

Other highlights from the interview include:

Salvucci said one of the biggest surprises to him has been how transit improvements have the potential to accelerate neighborhood gentrification and displace the very people who the transit improvements were supposed to benefit.  He specifically mentioned the replacement of the Hi-Lo grocery store in Jamaica Plain, which catered to the Hispanic community, with a Whole Foods supermarket. “The lower income people who [the transit improvements were] supposed to be for were priced out of those neighborhoods,” he said. “We didn’t see that coming.”

Salvucci likes the idea of regional rail, which would convert a rail system designed to ferry people to and from their jobs in Boston into a system designed to ferry customers all over the region at all times of the day. He thinks regional rail is likely to benefit a community like Lynn, which can’t rely on an extension of the Blue Line to the community. He noted the extension of the Blue Line to Lynn at one point had political momentum behind it until politics in the city itself shifted against the proposal.



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