Time for action on MBTA

System needs strong leadership and funding, not distraction of control board

A FOG OF CONFUSION threatens to obfuscate the hard, persistent facts that ought to dominate our thinking about how to restore and rejuvenate our public transportation system.  That confusion comes naturally from the avalanche of opinions, debates, media reports and op-ed pieces that have been offered up in response to the report of the governor’s special commission on the MBTA, and to the filing of the administration’s transit legislation.

I’d like to focus on three points that, for me, represent the core issues that will influence whether we will build a forward-looking, equitable, and effective set of solutions to modernize and improve our public transportation system:

Governance – The governor, as he rightly should have, now has full control over MassDOT with the resignation of the entire MassDOT board. That board should be appointed and move forward without delay to support Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack’s performance management agenda. We do not need a new layer of bureaucracy or additional legislation to get the job done.

Funding – There is no current proposal to make net new revenue available to the MBTA. MBTA revenues are, in fact, being cut dramatically – to the tune of well over a half billion dollars between now and 2020. Worse still, actions that could enable significant investment in MBTA infrastructure without raising any new taxes, fares, or fees are not yet being taken.

Equity – The prospect of significant fare increases has been raised as a real one, flying in the face of modal equity and threatening to upend the egalitarian transit system that ought to be the centerpiece of an economically diverse and integrated society.  State and local leaders should take fare increases off the table until such time as the T has demonstrated that it is on a clear turn-around course.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each point, as an aid to understanding more clearly the opportunity that still lies before us, and how to take advantage of it in a smart, equitable, and effective manner.

First, with respect to governance, it’s a good thing that the entire MassDOT board resigned, and that Gov. Baker now has full control over MassDOT.  I called for this; so did the conservative Pioneer Institute. This is not a partisan issue: Any governor ought to have control over the government he or she leads. That is what elections are all about.

Despite this unfettered gubernatorial control, the administration continues to call for a new layer of bureaucracy to oversee the T – a so-called fiscal control board. Such a control board is an unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy destined to interfere in a material way with the historic reforms of 2009, which intended to create significant cost and operational efficiencies by adopting a “one MassDOT” structure and culture. A control board by definition disrupts and threatens that hard-fought reform.  Boards, in my experience, rarely facilitate; more often they frustrate.  Having two boards will inevitably become a drag on the ability of the governor and the transportation secretary to move with agility and decisiveness.

What MassDOT needs right now is leadership from a strong, capable secretary – and it has that in Secretary Pollack. Let her run with the ball without the constraints and politics that inevitably accompany more layers of gubernatorial appointees. The governor now has the unfettered ability to appoint a MassDOT board under his full control, and that new board can work with Secretary Pollack to take decisive action consistent with his agenda and priorities.

Second, with respect to funding, the MBTA must make significant investments in its infrastructure to address the many critical state-of-good-repair needs that go directly to the safety and reliability of the system. The administration’s own estimates are that these needs exceed $6 billion. Such a daunting but unavoidable challenge must be addressed with adequate new funding. Instead, partly as a consequence of the special commission’s faulty report, and partly because of the administration’s proposed legislation, we are about to reduce planned funding to the T.  Lets look at the details.

The administration’s proposed legislation eliminates in full all of the additional state funding to the MBTA that was agreed to and enacted into law in 2013, as part of the overall deal to raise the gas tax and T fares. It also dedicates all of the T’s state contract assistance money to debt retirement, leaving a gaping hole in its operating budget. Together, the loss of anticipated revenue exceeds a half billion dollars.

The solution to the MBTA meltdown cannot be based upon such a significant reduction in MBTA funding. That simply makes no sense. Some say that the state general fund revenue that’s proposed for elimination in the bill was always subject to legislative appropriation, and therefore never absolutely certain – but that is true for almost any state funding. And once the obligation was enshrined in the law as an essential part of the overall deal, even if it is subject to appropriation, it becomes something close to a moral obligation that is subject to a different kind of scrutiny and review. Cutting this funding in its entirety sets the MBTA on an inexorable pathway to higher fares and reduced levels of service – exactly the kind of retrenchment and modal inequity that will keep the T locked in a downward spiral.

So we are left in a weirdly unreal place, where everyone clearly recognizes the massive investment needs of the T, but there is as of yet no plan to free up new revenue. Instead, we have a proposal for more than a half billion in cuts. It is, despite what the special commission proclaimed, another round of reform without revenue. One would have thought that we learned our lesson regarding this failed approach to transportation policy, but we appear to be living in a Through the Looking Glass world turned inside out.

At risk of repeating myself, there are at least two ways to free up significant new revenue to enable the MBTA to get moving this year with critical infrastructure repairs, without having to raise taxes, fares or fees. The first is to transfer a portion of highway funding to transit, a tactic that will defer some highway projects for a short time but will level the funding playing field and provide the T with an immediate injection of funding. This can be accomplished equitably by limiting those deferred highway projects to projects within the MBTA service district. The second approach is to transfer a large portion of MBTA debt to the Commonwealth. Together, these actions can free up as much as $300 million annually without asking anyone to pay more. This kind of money can go a long way toward getting the job done. It’s the least painful approach to getting substantial new revenue to the T quickly, and one that keeps the governor’s pledge not to raise taxes.

Third, with respect to equity, there has been a lot of talk and inference about the need for a large fare increase. The administration’s bill proposes to remove the fare cap that helped ensure an affordable, egalitarian transit system, a clear signal that a substantial fare increase is in the works. Officials have floated the idea of a sliding, means-tested fare structure as a way to manage the question of affordability for those of limited means. This is a well-intentioned idea that is likely to have serious unintended negative consequences.

On its face it sounds right to say that a sliding fare structure is fair and responsive to the realities of an economically diverse ridership. But this thinking is old thinking, and fails to recognize the emergence of private sector funded micro-transit options as credible private sector competition in the transit space. A private start-up called Bridj has made significant inroads offering a premium transit service within the urban core.

Bridj is a venture-capital funded business that is now taking its positive Boston/Cambridge experience and expanding it to other cities nationally. They have funding, an attractive and innovative product that responds to the mobility preferences of a more transit-oriented younger generation, and a smart, agile tech-oriented team that delivers a reliable, speedier service at a premium price. This trend is destined to proliferate. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that “better data on mobility patterns and wide smartphone access have made flexible, on-demand transit more possible than ever.”

It stands to reason: If you raise T fares to a point where the regular fare isn’t much different than the Bridj fare, people of means will choose to take the nicer alternative and will move to Bridj. Other competitors and private sector shuttles will follow. The T will soon become the transit mode of necessity, and not of choice. Once that happens the T is doomed, because its riders will never have the political clout to argue effectively for a proper level of investment and service quality and reliability.

We should not want, and cannot allow, the T to become the poster child for the tale of two cities. We have a public transportation system because having an egalitarian mobility platform reflects our values – values that do not allocate access to jobs, health care, and opportunity on the basis of personal wealth. The deck is already stacked in favor of those with means; something like an egalitarian public transportation system that is maintained to offer convenient and reliable service for all helps level the playing field.

One thing is certain: The competitive, choice-based micro-transit mobility paradigms of our times – Uber, Bridj and emerging alternatives – make it all the more urgent to ensure that people who can afford to take the T, those who take the T by choice, stay on the T. If they flee to emerging micro-transit options we will never get them back. Massachusetts, and especially cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, need to engage this reality head-on, and that may require a radical rethink of how we manage and fund our public transportation system. We won’t be able to engage that process in a meaningful way until we first modernize and improve the existing system.

A final point on fares: There is a false premise that continues to hang out in the fog as a misleading beacon – namely that the T’s fare box recovery numbers are significantly below national equivalents, and therefore justify a fare increase. This allegation has been disproven in several reports, most recently by the Frontier Group, and in a 2011 report commissioned by A Better City and authored by the respected former New York transportation commissioner Astrid Glynn.  Both reports make one salient point: Direct comparisons between transit authorities are virtually impossible to make given significant differences in service types, districts, and service areas.  The Frontier Group has reported that when compared fairly and accurately, the MBTA “often falls in the middle of the pack among US transit agencies.” The T is even a leader in one area: The fare box recovery ratio for the Green Line light rail service is the highest in the nation. So the special commission was just plain wrong when it reported that the MBTA has a low fare box recovery ratio, and this cannot become a pretext for another fare increase.

I support the administration’s efforts to find effective solutions to improving the MBTA, including introducing more reforms to ensure a stronger level of management control over work rules. I am convinced that the governor and Secretary Pollack are well-intentioned in their desire to improve the T. But I remain at a loss to understand the wisdom of embarking on a policy of retrenchment and modal inequity, or of enacting a series of reforms based upon a special commission report that has been shown to be seriously flawed. MassINC Polling Group’s Steve Koczela has done careful analytical work that undermines the report’s findings on absenteeism; the Frontier Group has shown that the commission’s fare box recovery numbers are wrong and unreliable; the commission itself could not respond to questions posed at a recent legislative hearing regarding its finding of $2 billion in unspent capital money (it was really unspent bond cap, not cash, which was the clear inference that was leaked to the media). I know many of the commission members personally and have great respect for them, but that document has not proven to be a reliable platform for building an MBTA renewal program.

The MBTA needs meaningful action now. The tools are in place for that to happen. The lingering question is whether we will use this opportunity moment to develop a consensus-oriented approach to modernizing and improving our public transportation system, and introduce true modal equity to our transportation funding system.

Meet the Author

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group.