New T board needs to include municipalities

New T board needs to include municipalities

Cities, via nonresidential parking taxes, must have skin in the game

Second of two parts, first part is here.

IN THE FIRST ARTICLE in this series, I wrote about the importance of addressing MBTA governance. A 2015 report from two highly respected transportation think tanks identified a number of reasons why the MBTA’s long-standing governance structure may not be optimal.  A governance structure that arises from 20th Century decision making may no longer respond to today’s needs or best practices.

The time has come to consider real governance changes – reforms – that neither play on the margins nor continue practices that have proven incapable of empowering the municipalities and T riders who have significant stakes in how, and how well, the transit system is operated and managed. Those governance reforms should be connected with new ways of generating revenue for the T, because those issues are inextricably linked: the makeup of a restructured MBTA board should be comprised of entities that have real financial skin in the game.

My proposal for a new MBTA governance structure begins with the proposition that municipalities ought to have more of a direct and impactful role in MBTA policymaking.  City and town leaders are, by necessity, close to the needs of their citizens. They have their fingers on the pulse of the people; they know the specific demands put on the transit system in their communities; they know the potential for economic growth and development associated with transit-oriented residential and commercial development; and they are directly accountable to the people who primarily use the system.  Mayors and city managers are “doers” – they spend their time grappling with tough operations and maintenance issues, labor issues, service delivery, and performance issues, exactly the kinds of issues that the T confronts every day.  They are well positioned to make important contributions to the governance of the MBTA.

Giving municipalities more direct control over the T can be accomplished in a fair way by significantly increasing municipal funding for the T, and there is a way to do that without requiring cities and towns to raise local property or other taxes.  The solution: carbon impact fees on non-residential parking.

In 2015, I wrote in CommonWealth: “Our state transportation funding system is, in substance and effect, basically the same system that was in place when Frank Sargent was governor. It’s a system that heavily subsidizes the true costs of vehicular mobility at the expense of all other modes.  It’s a system that hasn’t kept pace with inflation and whose purchasing power has therefore eroded significantly.  And it’s a system that has only scratched the surface of adopting technologies that will help increase net new revenue and modal equity.  In short, the Massachusetts transportation funding model is inequitable, unsustainable and woefully behind the times. Reforming that system and making it more robust, reliable and equitable must be part of the overall solution.”

Other than once again raising MBTA fares, no action has been taken since then to tackle the tough topic of generating net new revenue for the transportation sector.  In particular, we haven’t sorted out how to raise significant net new revenue for non-vehicular modes. There has been a yawning gap in federal and state transportation funding for too long:  the failure to treat transit, cycling, and walking as mobility choices that deserve fair, ample and consistent funding.  At the federal level, cycling and walking were referred to dismissively as “enhancements,” a sweet-sounding term that quickly became a pejorative, stigmatizing these modes as somehow unworthy of funding equity.  Now that most people desire to move toward a less auto-centric, more sustainable mobility platform, it is time to level the funding playing field and find creative new ways to generate revenue that encourages and supports modal shift, investment in transit, and safe, best-practices cycling lanes.  We may be at one of those opportune moments in time when, through the Fiscal and Management Control Board’s strategic planning process, we can introduce new, fair approaches to raising the revenue we need to accomplish our shared objective: transforming our mobility system from an auto-centric one to a more sustainable transit-oriented one.

I’ve written about this idea before. Municipalities would be empowered, at their local option, to improve multi-modal mobility and generate substantial net new revenue for chronically underfunded elements of our transportation system. In brief, the Legislature would enact a law allowing local communities to impose a carbon impact fee on nonresidential parking facilities with 10 or more spaces.  The funds derived from the carbon impact fee would be restricted and dedicated solely to transit and local cycling infrastructure and pedestrian improvements.

A participating community would be required to contribute a set minimum amount of this new revenue to the MBTA, in return for a seat on a new decision-making board.  Three such seats would be made available for participating municipalities, and those communities would decide among themselves how to rotate or allocate seats on the board.

Transportation now surpasses all other sectors, including industrial and commercial sectors, in the amount of energy consumed annually in the Commonwealth, occupying a 31.6 percent share in 2013.  Carbon impact fees would fairly assess vehicles for their impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time create a stable and reliable source of revenue (some or all of which could leverage private sector investment capital through bond funding) that could be used not only to contribute to the T, but also for safe, best-practices cycling lanes and pedestrian-oriented improvements.

The politics of this is appealing.  First, the Legislature would not be required to take a difficult vote to raise a tax or fee.  Instead, all the Legislature would do is vote to empower municipalities to impose a local carbon impact fee.  Imposing such a fee (only on non-residential parking) would be at local option.  At the local level, a disproportionately large number of people parking in non-residential parking spaces in cities like Boston, Quincy, and Cambridge do not live or vote in those communities.  As such, imposing a carbon impact fee comes at low local political risk.

A newly constituted MBTA governing board might look like this: a seven-member board, with four members appointed by the governor and three appointed by participating municipalities.  This is a simple and uncomplicated way of achieving the goal of more municipal inclusion in decision making, but there could be other variations.  The key would be to have shared responsibility between the state and the municipalities served by the T who are participating in its funding in a new and significant way. The current municipal assessments for the MBTA would remain in place, as would the Advisory Committee.

As an initial opponent of the creation of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, I have come to appreciate the importance of having a governing board that is highly qualified and motivated to bring fresh new thinking to the table, and that is unafraid of moving the MBTA firmly into the 21st Century. Returning to the old ways of doing business – when board members were often chosen either for political reasons, or for reasons other than whether they were qualified by experience or skill set  – won’t be a step in the right direction.  Let’s not take today’s snapshot in time as the norm; historically it is an aberration.

Meet the Author

Real reform starts at the top, and that means crafting a new MBTA governance structure to meet today’s realities and tomorrow’s needs.  Returning to a construct that resembles yesterday’s MBTA board won’t serve those needs. When the Fiscal and Management Control Board concludes it work, we need to be ready with a strong plan to replace it with something new. Empowering municipalities, and giving them the power and tools to have more financial skin in the game, is the way to go.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.  He is a principal at the Pemberton Square Group and serves on the board of the advocacy group TransitMatters.