The budget is a moral document; please justify $264 million

In the spirit of governor-elect Patrick’s “Streamlining Spending: Improve Budget Transparency” goal, I’d like to highlight a large spending initiative that I don’t foresee delivering a powerful positive influence.

The front page of today’s Boston Globe announces that state officials have agreed as part of a lawsuit settlement to build a $264 million link between the Government Center and Charles/MGH T stops.

The article says the new tunnel is meant to offset pollution (pushed by the Conservation Law Foundation) and ease the commute of Mass. General Hospital employees (pushed by Partners Healthcare).

While I feel the pain of commuters coming from Revere and support fresh air and fewer cars on the road as much as the next person, I need more convincing that is the best way to spend $264 million.  Am I alone?

Governor-elect Patrick mentions “Smart growth” in almost every one of his policy papers. He seems to be particularly interested in transit-oriented development. (I’m guessing that is partly lieutenant governor-elect Tim Murray’s influence.)

The 0.4-mile stretch that this new tunnel will require is a safe, easy walk down Cambridge Street in nice weather (shorter if you get off at Bowdoin). It’s also only about an additional 10 minutes if you go Government Center-Park Street-MGH. My point is, if the area around Government Center and MGH is already walkable and transit-oriented, two key tenets of smart growth, is there really a pressing need for this major initiative?

Perhaps oddly, I’m a bigger fan of two other recent MBTA announcements which cost more.  However, I believe they deliver a more tangible impact and are aligner closer to the Patrick administration’s (movement’s?) goals. 

The first came last week and detailed a litany of smaller, $1.5-$6.5 million improvements to existing infrastructure.  The focus there seems to be on public safety at existing stations (more lighting, cleaner facilities… very “broken windows” theory) as well as more efficient uses of energy, faster service, and greater accessibility for disabled persons.

Those investments align snugly with Governor-elect Patrick’s stated goals of “Environment: Practice What We Preach”, “Cities and Towns: Improve Public Transportation” and “Disability: Enforce the ADA”.  Perhaps more importantly, they build momentum for the MBTA within the communities they serve.  Anyone who rides the T with any regularity can attest to the frustration caused by slow service or delays.  It makes great business sense to focus on “replacing aging rails and switches and upgrading power sources” which allows the T to “to lift existing speed restrictions, and allow trains to operate at increased speeds.”

Among those communities who should see faster and more reliable service are the MGH employees coming from Revere and other locations on the Blue Line.

The second MBTA announcement I’m in favor of was described in the same Boston Globe article: the $559 extension of the Green Line to Medford Hills with a spur to Somerville’s Union Square. This is an enormous sum of money, but it also addresses perhaps the greatest unmet need by the MBTA subway sytem. One only has to look at the map of the T’s routes to see where the T lines don’t run: Somerville, a city with a population of over 77,000 and the highest population density in New England. 

The Green Line extension is a very real commitment to “Housing: Support Transit-Oriented Development”, directing public transportation where the public lives.  Strict adherence to the goals of the new administration would suggest that focus on this project and the smaller improvements MBTA-wide are the right uses of this money.

One of Governor-elect Patrick’s first actions in office will be to submit a budget.  The budget is a moral document that defines the priorities of a community. Mr. Patrick seems to place two initiatives as his top priorities: 1,000 new police officers ($85 million) and expanding the “circuit-breaker” tax break to 89,000 senior citizens ($60 million).  He has been criticized for not being able to afford those programs.  I think I know where he can get that $145 million and have $119 million to spare.

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12 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. No comments yet?

    ... but I even used graphics with pretty colors!  Boooo...  :)

    • You revealed your bias with 'safe, easy walk'.

      Ever done this with a wheelchair?  A walker?  a cane?

      The Red-Blue connector has been promised for decades, and I'm happy they are building it.  Someday, I want to take a train from Braintree to Wonderland!

      Besides - if you take your short, easy walk - don't you have to pay another fare?

      • Fair point

        I hear what you're saying.  I'm not in a wheelchair or need the assistance of a cane or walker to get around so it is easy for me to say "easy walk."

        However, I don't think digging a $264 million tunnel is the correct way to solve that problem.  Take $5 million (wild estimate) to make Gov't Center and Charles/MGH handicap accessible (Park Street already is, I believe).  Take another $2 million to improve the sidewalks from Bowdoin to MGH.

        The Zakim Bridge cost $100 million.  The Red-Blue connector is more than two and half times as costly.

        The federal contribution to the Gravina Island Bridge (nicknamed "The Bridge to Nowhere") in Alaska is expected to be $233 million and will be nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge.  The Red-Blue connector is $31 million more.

        I point those out to show the relative scale of this project.  I guess I'm just looking for very, very strong justification of such a large expense and I don't see it yet.

  2. It is a lot of money

    and should come under close scrutiny and spirited public discussion, so thanks for your post with the info as well as the pretty rainbow graphics :)

    So many public policy issues - transp., health care, public ed., the budget - are being significantly mismanaged and lack public oversight/input/accountability.  Did you know the lege commissioned a study in 2000 that found that 39% of all "healthcare spending" was not on healhtcare!  39% of Funds were, and are, diverted away from actual HC services to be spent on admin, marketing and the like, and the state is the biggest payor of health care bills!!  Where's the accountability for allowing that huge amount of ineffective spending and waste in taxpayer-funded healthcare?  Maybe we need to recoup some of it to spend on keeping T fares down, improving the T, public ed., senior care, etc

    Maybe part of the reason for poor management and absent public accountability is because for so long there's been a dearth of avenues for civic engagement, so folks don't feel comfortable trying to understand the details or to become engaged.  And at least for me, when numbers are so high (hundreds of millions) it's hard to get my mind around them.  I still try but it's tough. 

    Hopefully we will soon have tools for a more transparent budget, and budget-setting process. Like maybe a piechart with brief text summary flyer that gets distributed to library branches once or twice a year, and mailed by your lege with their newsletter in advance of the community forum to discuss the proposed budget.

    Back to the topic of your post, the proposed T project and the details you provide.  I think it's too much money.  It should be done for half that price or less.  If "they"(who?) say it can't be done for half, then Partners HC should pick up the balance.  There.  That was simple. 

    • Let's be aggressive

      What we need to do is expand the rapid transit to serve the dense populations inside 128, and to encourage people outside 128 to keep their cars out there. I don't know why we need to stop in Medford - the Green Line should move out to Anderson RTC in Woburn.  It is along an existing right of way.  Red line?  Think of all those cars coming down US 3 from the north, with no place to go. Come on, let's dream.

  3. very interesting post

    thanks for posting this, it got me to look at a bit: however, seeing that it's part of the big dig, compared the cost of the rest of it, it's hard to get upset about the part expanding public transportation. i think a much bigger focus on expanding commuter rail service is much more important than in city stuff, but Somerville is important: I had looked at living there until we realized there was no way direct way of getting to commuter rail if you didn't live near Davis or Porter Square.

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Thu 18 Dec 12:35 AM