MBTA not susceptible to magical solutions

Here are my five ideas for putting the transit agency on an upward trajectory

LAST WEEK’S NEWS regarding T safety conditions and slowdowns took most people by surprise, as the hope associated with a new gubernatorial administration and the feeling that perhaps the absolute worst was behind us gave many a false sense that a corner had been turned. The news forcefully and persuasively pushed aside those misplaced hopes.

What ails our MBTA is multi-faceted, complex, years in the making, and not susceptible to magical solutions. There are no rabbits hiding in the deep recesses of the magician’s hat. Fixing the T will take hard work, new funding and personnel resources, as well as a deep commitment on the part of T employees to accept the need, as interim General Manager Jeff Gonneville so nicely put it, to cooperate fully in a pivot of the agency’s culture.

I want to use this article to underscore five points that I believe everyone needs to understand, accept, and work with.

First, as I have previously said, there are many urgent personnel needs that need priority attention.  Finding a new general manager is not among them. If interim GM Gonneville’s press conference last week did anything, it reaffirmed how well the agency is currently being led. He was poised, transparent, and decisive. It inspired confidence. Finding a permanent new GM – the right person – will not be easy and should not be rushed. Whether Jeff can earn the governor’s trust and become that new person is not a question that needs to be answered in this moment. For now, he’s performing at a high level and no new GM would likely be doing anything differently.

Indeed, the introduction of a new GM at this time probably delays and sets back progress, as it will come with a several-month period of transition where everything will be frozen in place waiting for the new leader to get his or her bearings. Instead, focus should be placed on hiring people to fill critical positions that are either unfilled or that plainly need new blood. This includes senior level professionals at the project management and engineering levels, as well as bus drivers and dispatchers.

Second, the Legislature needs to act this year to respond effectively to the T’s looming operating budget shortfall and crisis. The T has telegraphed the dimensions and timing of this, and that fiscal crisis people have been talking about will likely occur sooner next year than we previously thought. T services that have been unreliable and slow have predictably pushed people away from transit to the point that the current staff is projecting a ridership recovery scenario worse than any previously considered. This means that fare revenues are permanently reduced from pre-pandemic levels and can no longer support a third of the total operating budget. The only solution the authority has to deal with this situation is to heavily reduce service or heavily increase fares, neither of which is tenable or acceptable. Solving any meaningful measure of this deficit by “belt tightening” is a fantasy, a political talking point, and nothing more.

The governor and Legislature need to fill the looming operating budget gap and increase the total amount of state support for operating expenses, this year. With a legislative election year approaching in 2024, we can safely say that any decisions on the part of the House and Senate should prudently occur this calendar year. I again call on the Legislature to take prompt steps to remove the cost of paratransit from the T and all statewide regional transit agencies, freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars without raising anyone’s fares, taxes, or fees. Similarly, shifting a large portion of T and regional transit authority A debt service to the Commonwealth (minimum of 75 percent) is a smart way to leverage a portion of the millionaire tax money without burdening the average taxpayer or transit rider. These actions will promote transit and rail stability without increasing the burden on the poor or middle class.

Third, the governor should call on the Legislature to recreate the MBTA board and turn it into something more closely resembling the Fiscal and Management Control Board. This is a crisis moment, much worse than the crisis of 2015, and we need to act accordingly. The T and its riders need a new board that is highly experienced, engaged, and committed to working closely with staff to turn things around. We do not need board members focused on austerity or stuck in old ways of thinking.

A new T board will send a signal to riders that this administration is tackling this issue effectively. The mayor of Boston should have the chance to select or nominate one of those board positions. The state, city, and the MBTA are fortunate to have in Mayor Michelle Wu a regular T rider who understands the connection between transit infrastructure that works reliably and economic growth and equity. Because of the T’s outsized role in Boston, the city’s future, indeed its full recovery from the pandemic, depends in part on a high functioning transit system. Give Wu a place at the table and let her have some agency in setting priorities and measuring performance.

Fourth, the recently updated capital investment plan is a very disappointing document, reflecting a “more of the same” attitude about the nature and timing of transit and rail investments. A new board needs to insist on revisiting the capital investment plan  and reordering its priorities. The plan does nothing to advance the critically needed Red-Blue Connector, nor does it advance regional rail. Instead, it retains the same paltry $15 million that has been in prior capital investment plans for the Red-Blue Connector, telegraphing that the T has not made it a priority despite its obvious environmental, operational, and equity benefits.

Also, the capital investment plan as released doubles down on the purchase of rail equipment that will make it harder to electrify the system. Rather than invest in a short-term electrification of the Providence and Fairmount Lines, which would be affordable and achievable in the first term of the Healey administration, the plan appropriates the use of the term “Regional Rail” but fails to deliver on its promise. The T’s commuter rail operations are quite well led, both internally and by the operator of the system, Keolis. The fiscal and construction sides of the T need to step up and provide riders with a capital investment plan that invests in a brighter future, not more of the same.

Fifth, Gov. Maura Healey has made much of her commitment to reduce statewide carbon emissions and decarbonize the various sectors contributing most to greenhouse gas emissions. She has taken the laudable step of appointing a cabinet-level climate chief and appointing the highly regarded Melissa Hoffer to the post. With all due respect to their efforts, I am here to say that meaningful carbon emission reductions in Massachusetts cannot and will not take place if we do not redirect our energies, funding priorities, and policies to promoting more use of transit and rail, particularly in metro Boston inner-core communities.

If we think, as the prior administration so unwisely did, that putting all our hopes onto the transition to electric vehicles is the solution to transport sector carbon emissions, we are making a generational mistake. That transition will be slower, more uneven, and more inequitable than most people are willing to admit or realize. We need other complementary strategies, to fulfill the clear message of the Commission on the Future of Transportation: we need to move more people in fewer vehicles. In order to do this, we need state leaders who will act in a manner consistent with the four points I have previously set out in this article.

I cannot count the number of times I and others have written or said, “the time for decisive action is now.” Let me say it again. Nothing I am calling for here is bold, or controversial, or even difficult to do. It just requires leadership. We now have many good leaders in place who can do this. Every MBTA rider, every person who cares about our state’s future, will have their backs as they take the actions necessary to put the MBTA on a path toward full recovery.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and a member of the board of TransitMatters.