The T must succeed

Reform, reinvestment, revenue all needed to put the MBTA on track

THIS WINTER’S MBTA debacle has focused attention – as it should – on how the T does business.  But it is important not to lose sight of why the T does business: to spark and support economic development, ensure equitable access to opportunity, reduce congestion on our roads, and clean our air.

The most pressing debate to have about the T is not about who is to blame for its current woes, nor is it about the wisdom of decisions made decades ago. Rather, it is about how to build a transit system that is worthy of our region and capable of supporting its continued economic growth.

The need for a solution is urgent, and not just because of the likelihood that it will snow again next winter. Boston is in the midst of what the Boston Globe recently called “a building spree whose enormity, pace, and geographic sweep are redefining the skyline faster than any period since the early Industrial Age.” The city’s population has swelled by more than 50,000 since 2000, and the number of people reporting that they work in the city has been growing as well.

The pace of growth is accelerating: More residential building permits were issued in Boston in 2014 than in any year since at least 1996. By 2030, more than 700,000 people could call Boston home – the most since the dawn of the suburban age in the 1950s.

Let’s state the obvious: there is no way to sustain that level of growth while increasing our reliance on cars. Forget for a moment about our already crushing traffic congestion, the astronomical costs of the Big Dig to try to address that congestion, or Massachusetts’s prodigious highway, bridge and road maintenance backlog.  That’s a crisis for another day.

Greater Boston is succeeding in the global competition for talent and investment in large part because we offer the kind of vibrant urban areas and walkable communities that are increasingly in demand.  Boston now has the largest proportion of 20 to 34 year-olds of any major American city, helping to attract firms from around the globe that are seeking emerging talent to set up shop in Massachusetts.

Our neighborhoods, downtowns, and city centers – places made possible and made livable by generations of investments in public transportation – represent a key competitive advantage for Massachusetts in the 21st century. But we need to acknowledge another obvious fact: The MBTA is currently in no position to allow Massachusetts to capitalize on that advantage.

The MBTA’s reliance on aging, unreliable vehicles and infrastructure is well-known. Less well-known is the fact that key portions of the core MBTA system – including the Orange and Red lines, South Station, and increasingly, the waterfront portion of the Silver Line – already run at or near their capacity, thanks to a surge in ridership in recent years. Without immediate action, transit congestion is likely to only get worse. A 2012 report projected that the MBTA will add between 100,000 and 367,000 daily riders to the MBTA system by 2021. With overcrowded train cars and unreliable service already a staple of many transit riders’ daily experience, and demand on the rise, sitting still is not a viable option.

There are also emerging opportunities that we are ill-equipped to capture. Rising commercial and residential rents in the Boston area create the chance to spark new growth and address the deep economic challenges in Gateway Cities such as Brockton, Lynn, and Lawrence. But those opportunities can only be realized with full, convenient access to the regional transportation network, including transit.

Fiscally, the MBTA is locked in a budgetary straitjacket. The agency has virtually no control over its sources of revenue and only limited control of its expenses (which are, on an operating basis at least, on par with those of other major transit agencies). The ticking fiscal time bomb of so-called “forward funding” has finally exploded, leaving us with the unenviable choice between sacrificing the present for the sake of the future or sacrificing the future for the sake of the present.

Something needs to change. The MBTA crisis is a fiscal one, to be sure, but not only that. It is also a crisis that affects the health, welfare, economic competitiveness and quality of life of millions of people throughout Massachusetts.

How to solve it? To begin, we need to focus on reform, reinvestment, and revenue.

Reform. Transportation reform legislation in 2009 and 2013 addressed some of the biggest problems at the MBTA, but there remain major areas – from the agency’s system for tracking and prioritizing maintenance needs to its pension system to public transparency and accountability – that require reform. Independent audits of the agency’s fiscal management and operational performance can shed light on additional areas of needed improvement. But the need for transportation reform extends beyond the MBTA. If Massachusetts is going to invest wisely in new transportation infrastructure, we need to be able to evaluate which investments will deliver the greatest benefits. The upcoming recommendations of the Project Selection Advisory Council (created by the 2013 reform law) could lay the groundwork for a new, data-driven system for prioritizing transportation projects that deliver economic, climate, and social equity benefits. Comparing investments against one another would be a huge step forward in making smart investment decisions.

Reinvestment. The MBTA’s maintenance backlog, which is estimated at $6.7 billion absent a full assessment of assets and excluding commuter rail needs, is the most urgent target for reinvestment. Key improvements – such as the replacement of aging Red and Orange line cars – are already in the works thanks to the 2013 Transportation Finance Act. But the Commonwealth must also be ready to undertake strategic investments in new vehicles and new capacity to improve the system’s ability to serve the recent surge of new users and facilitate future growth. Massachusetts cannot expect to compete in the 21st century with a 20th (and in some places, 19th) century transit system; we need smart additions to transit capacity and we need them now.

Revenue. While the T can certainly operate more efficiently, no amount of cost-trimming is going to be enough to pay down the MBTA’s gargantuan debt load, much less enable the T to rehabilitate its existing infrastructure and serve emerging needs. Experts have warned for years about Massachusetts’s transportation funding crisis, yet the T’s structural deficit gets wider with every passing year. Now is the time to identify reliable, realistic sources of transportation funding that can put the MBTA back on its feet and enable the Commonwealth to invest for the future.

Meet the Author

Tony Dutzik

Guest Contributor, Frontier Group
Meet the Author

Kristina Egan

Guest Contributor, Transportation for Massachusetts
Massachusetts is at a moment of tremendous promise and economic opportunity. Investments in public transportation have helped spur economic growth over the last decade while reducing the impacts of that growth on our highways and our environment. Gov. Baker and the Legislature have tough decisions ahead that will determine the future of the MBTA.  For the sake of the state’s future, we must all remember that the T is more than just a cost center – it is the center of a transportation system that serves a vibrant, growing region. We need it to succeed.

Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst at Frontier Group, a public policy think tank. Kristina Egan is director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of over 40 organizations working together to create safe, convenient, and affordable transportation.