Aloisi’s fixes for the T

Get rid of MassDOT board

THE RECENT MELTDOWN of MBTA service has left a lot of people wondering about its reliability as a mobility alternative for people, especially in harsh winter weather conditions.  One of those people is clearly Gov. Charlie Baker, who has expressed disappointment and concern about not just the T’s performance, but also its failure to live up to representations about service reliability it has made to him and the public.  In a press conference during the most recent winter storm, Baker said more than once that while he did not believe that the T had lied to him, he nevertheless found it “unacceptable” that their representations regarding operations were not being proven reliable.

What’s worse, the new Red and Orange line cars that were purchased late last year will not be delivered until 2018 (Orange Line) and late 2019 (Red Line) – and that assumes that they are delivered on time and in good working condition.  The T’s recent experience with the delivery of commuter rail locomotives that were defective on delivery means that quality assurance needs to be priority number one when it comes to the Red and Orange Line cars.

Quick and decisive action ought to be the order of the day.  Public transportation is too important to our economy and our daily lives to defer such action. In the spirit of offering some constructive thoughts, I offer three steps that might make a substantive difference.

Perform a detailed investigative audit of the MBTA’s maintenance protocols

It seems appropriate for the governor to request that an outside independent expert undertake a deep dive into MBTA maintenance protocols.  Are we doing everything we can do to maintain what we have?  Are there other approaches, techniques, equipment that we can employ to prevent the recent equipment failures?  What can we learn from other older systems?  It may well be that we are doing everything we can and doing it well – if so, fine.  But let’s have some independent assurance of that, and let’s be open to learning new things. A detailed investigative audit could enhance public confidence that the T is doing all it can do under difficult circumstances, and may reap enormous dividends before next winter is upon us.

Develop a snow emergency work-around for the subway lines

Since new Red and Orange Line cars are not going to arrive for several years, something needs to be done in the interim. This idea requires the cooperation of multiple actors – cities and towns, private sector businesses and most of all the motoring public. Simply put, let’s identify certain corridors leading from key Red, Orange and Blue Line stations and designate them “snow emergency corridors.” That means no cars allowed except official and emergency vehicles. It means special attention to priority plowing and clearing, and it means deploying a large fleet of reliable busses to get people to and from designated mobility hubs in the city.  This requires a lot of interagency cooperation and coordination, but it could be a fast and relatively affordable way to ensure public transport mobility during the height of major winter events like the ones we are experiencing this year.

Eliminate the MassDOT board

Reliability and safety are the cornerstones of any transit mobility system, and if the T cannot function at any reasonable degree of reliability,during even the harshest of conditions, the governor needs to address what’s causing that quickly and effectively.  Unfortunately, the governor doesn’t directly control the MBTA.  As a result of the 2009 Transportation Reform bill, the T board was merged into the seven-member MassDOT board, and because of staggered terms that board is beyond the reach and control of the governor.

The MassDOT board is a needless addition to the transportation bureaucracy, a barrier between gubernatorial control and accountability.  We elect a governor, and for better or worse that governor ought to be able to appoint and have control over his or her team. In days past, independent authorities like the Turnpike Authority had independent boards with staggered term appointments, effectively depriving any new governor of control until the end of his first term or the beginning of his second. It took Mike Dukakis, elected for a second term in 1982, until 1988 to gain control of the MassPike board.  He was able to take control over Massport much sooner, but only as a result of a quirk in state law that invalidated several board appointments made by Gov. Edward King less than 15 days before the end of his term. Bill Weld wanted but could not get control over MassPike when I was general counsel there, and the result was much rancor and frustration.

The MassDOT board is a vestige of a political battle, not of thoughtful public policy. The 2009 Transportation Reform bill that I filed with the legislature did not include a MassDOT board – that was an invention of the Senate, and its former transportation chair, Steven Baddour of Methuen. He and I were feuding about my opposition to his “reform before revenue” approach to the bill, an approach that I feared (rightly) would lead to reform without much meaningful net new revenue. Creating the board was meant as a slap to me; its entire rationale for being was a way to reduce my power as secretary. Even after I received assurances from both the then- House and Senate transportation chairs that the secretary would be on the board as an ex officio member, that did not happen. The change in the law placing the secretary on the board took place several years later, after it became clear that the construct enacted into law in 2009 freezing out the secretary was untenable.

I do not question or challenge the good intentions and fitness of any of MassDOT’s board members. I know several of them and they are good people. This is not about them. This is, rather, about how government ought to work, and whether such an essential unit of government should be separated from gubernatorial control and authority. No other secretariat has such a board, and I can think of no sound public policy that would support maintaining a MassDOT board.

Fixing what ails the MBTA will ultimately require substantial net new revenue. Such revenue can be generated in many ways, and none are easy. As an initial step I have proposed that the state relieve the T of at least $2 billion of its current $5 billion of debt.  Some of that debt is legacy debt from the time of forward funding; some of it is related to Big Dig obligations. The money that the T will save in debt service can be dedicated to projects that rise to a level of critical need. This approach will require the state to take on additional debt, but it is a way to open up substantial revenue without raising fares, fees, or taxes. In the long term, I have proposed a variety of technology-based approaches to raising net new revenue that I hope will be considered as reasonable and appropriate ways to infuse the public transportation system with the funds it needs to tackle state-of-good-repair needs.

Meet the Author

We have learned this winter that the T needs our support and help.  This is not the time for recrimination but rather a time to find and implement creative solutions that will prevent the recent operational troubles from recurring. The T is an old system and it will take time, a strategic plan, and net new revenue to set it right. It can be done, it must be done, and perhaps this moment in time presents itself as one where a bipartisan solution can be achieved.

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