Baker, Trump budgets disappointing for transportation

Level funding regional transit authorities amounts to a shameful budget cut

IF YOU THOUGHT we might have turned a corner generating political support for what most of the public appears to want – a more resilient, reliable, sustainable transportation network – you were wrong. At both the federal and state levels the rhetoric sounds good, but the reality leaves a lot to be desired.

The Trump Administration’s much-ballyhooed infrastructure plan proves to be (no surprise here) largely a con job, promising to “generate” – not spend – over a trillion dollars in funding.  The Trump plan is really no plan at all, but rather a call for the private sector to come to the rescue of an aging and often failing national infrastructure. Trump proposes to appropriate a paltry $200 billion in federal dollars over 10 years – money that he and the Republican Congressional majority would require to be offset by equivalent spending cuts elsewhere – in order to “leverage” another $1.3 trillion in state local and private sector dollars.  Of course you cannot leverage what is not there, and states like Massachusetts, which stubbornly refuses to raise net new transportation revenue, have no margins to offer up to “leverage” these potential federal dollars.

Trump’s State of the Union promise to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” glaringly left out transit.  That is a predictable disappointment, as few believed this administration would understand or support investments in sustainable mobility, and in any event it’s not as if anyone believes there is a real chance that meaningful new federal transportation funding will be coming anytime soon. Many observers believe that, in the end, there will be no infrastructure initiative because Trump has essentially put out a poorly formed idea, and left the details to a Congress that remains politically and ideologically polarized.

At the state level, Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal year 2019 budget provides disappointing news to transit advocates, as it continues to “level fund” Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) and fails to advance efforts to generate net new revenue for transit.  Let’s get one fact clear right away: unless we are experiencing negative inflation (which we are not – inflation is running at about 2 percent), level funding is a funding cut.  The purchasing value of today’s dollar is less than the value of yesterday’s.  So proposing to “level fund” RTAs, or MBTA operating support for that matter, as the proposed FY2019 budget does, means that those accounts are being effectively reduced.

The proposed budget cuts for RTAs are especially troublesome, as RTAs serve many of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents – people for whom car ownership is often financially out of reach – and provide essential transit services in places that are typically not walkable or reachable except by car.  The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which carries over 11 million riders annually, is proposing to increase fares by 25 percent this July and reduce service for the second time in a year.  In Worcester, the RTA raised fares and cut service last year and still has a $1million shortfall, a shortfall that may trigger further service (and job) cuts and fare hikes.  Everyone in the Commonwealth who cares about sustainable mobility and social and regional equity should find this situation unacceptable.

The MBTA is investing in state of good repair and capacity projects, but at a pace that is not commensurate with the level of service unreliability and disruption faced by riders every day. It is good that we are spending more, and moving forward with the legacy initiatives to replace the Red and Orange Line fleets.  But much more needs to be done, and only if we begin to invest on an accelerated basis, not just on state of good repair initiatives but on others as well, will we be able to make a discernable difference in people’s commutes.  One glaring problem that came to light in the aftermath of the state’s discredited ridership projections for West Station is the inaccurate and outdated model on which those non-credible projections were built.  New models cost money, and a major refresh is obviously overdue.  I point this out because there are many reasons for generating net new transportation revenue, and one of them has to do with the quality of the modeling that gets used to make or support critically important policy decisions.

We also know that the T cannot put out more work without the resources to do it, and there is insufficient funding available to pay for those additional resources.  The laudable goal of moving all T employees who were being paid from the capital budget onto the operating budget is being derailed by the proposed budget, which proposes to continue to pay certain employees involved in design and construction work with borrowed money. Although federal accounting and reporting standards may allow this practice, it nevertheless creates a false impression that the operating budget is sufficient to its needs, and it continues the bad practice of paying workers out of funds that should be directed toward actual infrastructure projects.

None of this is to diminish the good job the MBTA has done keeping costs in check. Leadership at the Fiscal and Management Control Board and staff levels gets high marks for increasing own-source revenue and holding down operating costs through actively managing headcounts and skillful negotiations with labor unions.  The focus on increasing productivity and efficiency is welcome, but as the T’s Chief Administrator Michael Abramo said at a recent FMCB meeting, strategies like that, while worth doing, “are not a silver bullet” when it comes to keeping the books in balance.  At some point, everyone must come face to face with the reality that net new revenue enabling the hiring of qualified resources (exactly what the T did to put the Green Line extension project back on track) and stepped up investment is  the only viable way to advance the metro Boston transit system to where it needs to be to sustain our economic growth.

The importance of a fully functional, highly functioning transit system is being underscored this week.  A Better City is releasing a major report on the importance of the MBTA to the metro Boston economy.  The report highlights (among other things) how metro Boston produces 74 percent of the state’s jobs and 84 percent of our gross domestic product. The robust state economy is tied to our transit orientation, as a disproportionate amount of jobs and housing are located and growing in or near transit stations.  The report studies 24 areas in metro Boston – transit growth clusters – and makes a persuasive case that private sector development and investment, and job creation, takes place primarily around transit availability.  In six of these transit growth clusters, 650,000 workers can reach their jobs with a transit commute of a half hour or less (assuming a properly functioning T). The report underscores that most people want to work and live in areas that are relatively easy to get to, locations that enable them to avoid wasteful and frustrating traffic congestion.  Today we still endure an aging and unresilient system that continues to strain under the burden of insufficient funding. That needs to change if we want to keep and grow jobs, and if we want to do so in a sustainable and equitable way.  The ABC report is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake.

Transit advocates this year will be focusing on a number of initiatives to advance sustainable mobility and inject the system with net new revenue.  Expect to hear more about smart tolling and congestion pricing, pricing according to miles traveled on state roads (VMT), and a market-based regional solution to transportation-related emissions, based on the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), to generate new transportation revenue (among others). Expect also an advocacy-driven effort to transition from our current commuter rail system to a more convenient, reliable, and ultimately less costly regional rail system. The ABC report supports this advocacy by calling attention to the dangers of growing traffic congestion in the region, and calling for stepped-up investment not simply toward state of good repair, but also toward enhancements that are geared toward bringing the transit system fully into the 21st Century.  These initiatives include bus rapid transit and regional rail, two game-changing approaches to improving accessibility to jobs and other destinations in a socially and regionally equitable way.

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The scale of our long-standing underinvestment in transit requires us to embark on an unprecedented period of renewal. Achieving state of good repair by fiscal year 2032, which remains the current target, is not sufficiently aggressive to meet the need.  The ability to respond to today’s growth – and projected growth in the region – depends on whether we can offer people true transit reliability, the reliability that comes from a system in good repair, a system that can handle current and projected demand, a system that offers convenient and frequent schedules, and a system that provides the connectivity that enables people to live in affordable communities wherever they work.

Finally, while the importance of transit to metro Boston is important to understand for many reasons, we cannot let it obscure the importance of properly funding regional transit systems across the state.  If we allow the RTAs to remain underfunded, we are baking in social and regional inequities that are frankly shameful and self-defeating.  Everyone living in Massachusetts should be able to benefit from public transportation, and we cannot turn our backs on those regions that rely on RTAs to provide mobility to thousands of our fellow citizens.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.