Fact, fiction, and adult conversations about transportation

If more evidence was needed that the state transportation sector is in freefall, Dana Levenson, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s chief financial officer, has obliged.

The State House News Service reported that Levenson, who appeared before the MassDOT finance and audit committee yesterday, called the department’s fiscal 2013 budget “fictional.”

“But it is a balanced budget based on past practices,” he said.

The Transportation Finance Commission identified the fiscal flaw of using borrowed funds to pay employees, particularly at MassHighway, five years ago.

Cue Ferdinand Alvaro, MassDOT board’s finance and audit committee chairman to point out the folly of the practice once again. He added that he would not support future budgets that rely on that mechanism.

Meanwhile, the MBTA continues its descent into the twilight zone. According to a second State House News Service report (subscription required), independent auditors discovered slipshod procurement practices and “non compliance” with federal regulations.

Wearing his MBTA board member hat, Alvaro commented, ”We have a system where we don’t even know if people are stealing from us.”

Does the MBTA need a control board after all? MassDOT officials have downplayed the need for another group to ride herd on the agency. But if further investigations uncover more than lax inventory controls, the proposal that was defeated in the Senate last week might not seem so far-fetched.

Not surprisingly, the MassDOT/MBTA board and the Legislature continue to point fingers at each other over who is to blame for the lack of progress on solving the state’s transportation quandaries. State lawmakers’ complaints about the MassDOT/MBTA board’s lack of initiative have some merit. Apart from Alvaro, the board has been largely silent about the financial chaos at the MBTA, with no specific policy prescriptions offered that would put either MassDOT or the MBTA on more solid financial footing.

Beacon Hill isn’t blameless in this current state of affairs. Other than providing funds to stave off the latest T budget emergency, legislators have consistently failed to gin up any new ideas on how to revive a sector that is running on fumes. Speaker Robert DeLeo has said that situation will change…next year.  Gov. Deval Patrick has been unwilling to stick his neck out for transportation since his gas tax proposal died in 2009.

There has been plenty of chatter about the need for an adult conversation on financing transportation in Massachusetts. What’s missing are the adults who will step forward to steer the conversation from the realm of fiction into the real world.

                                                                                                                                                –GABRIELLE GURLEY


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