Pollack notes: More money for RTAs not the answer

Value capture unlikely with South Coast Rail

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY STEPHANIE POLLACK said on Tuesday that more money is not the answer to the financial woes of the state’s 15 regional transit authorities.

The authorities have been pushing state lawmakers for a bigger appropriation for the coming fiscal year, but Pollack indicated the authorities should first take stock of the existing transportation marketplace and adapt to it.

“They’re going to need to reinvent themselves the same way the T is in the process of reinventing itself,” she said at an event on transit-oriented development in Gateway Cities sponsored by MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine. “The answer is not to give them more money.”

Pollack said the regional transit authorities had a combined budget of $67 million five years ago and their budget is just over $80 million today, but over that time ridership has either remained steady or declined. (The budget was $67.6 million in fiscal year 2014, rose to $80 million in fiscal 2015, and then increased again to $82 million in fiscal 2016. After holding at $82 million in fiscal 2017, the budget slipped back to $80 million in the current fiscal year and the governor and the House have proposed the same funding level for next year.)

Pollack said the regional transit authorities, which operate bus networks, have to operate more smartly because the business is going through dramatic change. She said most bus networks, including the T’s, are seeing ridership fall, in part because ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft are taking business away from them. She said she had recently reviewed data on Uber and Lyft rides in Massachusetts and concluded that the impact of the apps is more widespread than people think. “It’s not just Boston and Cambridge,” she said.

Daniel Rivera, the mayor of Lawrence, pushed back at Pollack, saying ridership has fallen at regional transit authorities when fares have been increased to cover rising operating expenses. The secretary responded that regional transit authorities need to be smarter about raising fares.

“The best way to raise fares is very moderately every few years,” she said. It’s not a wise approach to hold fares steady for 10 years and then boost them 20 percent, she said, an apparent allusion to what the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority plans to do in June unless the Legislature ups its appropriation for regional transit authorities to $88 million

Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford indicated the problem with regional transit authorities is state under-funding. “We need $8 million more for RTAs,” he said.

Value capture not likely with South Coast Rail

To make the financial numbers work with the $2 billion Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, the state tapped the cities of Cambridge and Somerville for an unprecedented $75 million contribution. Pollack said a similar request won’t be made of communities benefiting from the South Coast Rail project to New Bedford and Fall River.

“For a project like South Coast Rail, I’ve got to be honest with you, we’re not taking a very hard look at it,” Pollack said. “Because the value, as this report points out, is lower in these Gateway Cities where the market is just not going to pay as much whether it’s for commercial or residential. And so we’re asking an awful lot of a lower-income community with a lower property tax base to pony up some of its future property tax dollars – they’re already spoken for five times over.”

Pollack said the state will pursue so-called value capture – the secretary called it value sharing – where appropriate but not in every case. “It is community specific. It is project specific,” she said.

The secretary said the biggest hurdle facing transit-oriented development in Gateway Cities is also the municipalities’ biggest advantage. She said lower costs attract businesses and homeowners interested in a better deal than they can find in Boston, but the lower costs also mean it’s more difficult to make real estate deals that turn a profit.

Lower fares possible but tough

A MassINC report said there is great potential for transit-oriented development in 13 Gateway Cities with current or planned commuter rail stations, and it said the development could be spurred if service could be improved and fares lowered for residents who live and/or work near the stations.

Pollack said fares could theoretically be lowered for individuals living near commuter rail stations with a new fare system likely to be fully deployed by the MBTA in 2020. But she raised concerns about who would pay for the subsidies. She noted Seattle offers lower fares to some of its residents, but reimburses the city’s transit authority for the lost revenue.

“It’s tough to ask the T to absorb fare subsidies and provide more service,” she said. “We’ve got to balance our budget the way everyone else does.”

Commuter rail is already the costliest service provided by the MBTA. Pollack said commuter rail accounts for 9 percent of the T’s ridership and 30 percent of its operating cost.

Commuter rail juggling act

Pollack said running the commuter rail system requires balancing three sets of investments – those needed to keep the existing system going, those needed to expand the system, and those needed to improve the system’s operation.

The secretary said there is wide disagreement on what needs to be done to improve the system. Some, she said, want quicker, faster service to far-away communities such as Worcester, Fitchburg, New Bedford, and Fall River. Others want the system to operate more frequently, similar to subways, closer to the urban core.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“It’s very hard to simultaneously run an urban rail system on the inner tracks and a regional rail system on the outer tracks,” she said. “It’s tough to do on the same system.”

Pollack noted her agency recently launched a commuter rail vision study that will attempt to build simulation models that can answer how much it would cost to provide various commuter rail configurations.