Proposed MBTA Service Cuts/Fare Increase — Passing the Buck for Mitigation

The legislature needs to fix this; the public needs to make them do it, and then support the folks that take the hard votes to make it happen. - promoted by charley-on-the-mta

Imagine if a university found to have violated Title IX and ordered to strengthen its women’s athletics program passed the cost of required improvements in women’s programming on to the female students who enrolled in them.

Imagine if a defense contractor found to be operating an unsafe workplace charged the workers for the cost of addressing the health and safety violations.

These are (hopefully) absurd examples of passing the buck for mitigation… but that’s exactly what the Mass. Legislature did when it saddled the MBTA — and its ridership — with the debt service to pay for the federally mandated transit improvements required as Big Dig mitigation.   According to MBTA Manager Richard Davies, the T’s $452 million in annual debt service eats up the entire $450 million in annual farebox revenues: “every dollar of what we take in from our customers goes to pay off the credit card.”   Fully 1/3 of that debt service — and an amount approximately equal to the annual operating deficit — is paying off transit improvements that were part of the State’s Big Dig SIP obligations.

Instead of passing the buck for mitigation — and burdening transit riders with fare increases and service reductions (which Mr. Davey predicts will cut ridership by 9-17% and will ironically – think SIP – put more people in cars) — the Legislature should shift the Big Dig SIP-related portion of the debt service out of the MBTA’s budget and back to the overall State Budget.

To quote the MBTA Advisory Board’s April 2009 report entitled Born Broke, “The MBTA is stuck in a financial, not organizational quagmire. No amount of reorganization, reform, or efficiencies can generate the $160 million needed to close the FY10 budget gap, let alone the even larger deficits projected in the future. Until the MBTA’s underlying debt and financing weaknesses are addressed, all such changes, at best, will only delay the T’s day of reckoning. Relief of the $3.3 billion in Commonwealth debt currently on the MBTA’s books is the fairest, most efficient and most feasible way to solve for the MBTA’s underlying financial deficiencies.”

Fully half of the debt (excluding interest) that the State transferred to the MBTA as part of the Forward Funding legislation of 2000 ($1.7 billion of the $3.3 billion) — and about one-third of the $5.2 billion total debt (not counting interest) on the books at the time of the 2009 Advisory Committee report — was attributable to the capital cost of meeting the State’s legal SIP obligations in conjunction with receiving federal funding for the Big Dig.   Including interest, the total debt was over $8 billion.  (This doesn’t include the cost of yet-to-be-financed SIP-related projects, which the State re-assumed responsibility for in 2007; nor does it include the cost of future borrowing to complete already-started SIP-related projects which the T remains on the hook for.)

While it makes sense to force the T to operate within a budget (as the Forward Financing legislation required), and while it makes sense to provide the MBTA with a predictable funding stream (as the 2000 legislation purported to do in designating one cent of the sales tax to the T), it doesn’t make sense to saddle that budget with unsustainable debt.

Is erasing the T’s $160 million operating deficit by shifting SIP-related debt service to the State a long-term solution?  No.  But it provides temporary protection for public transit riders, protects the air quality improvements that SIP projects enabled, and buys the Legislature and Governor time to devise a long-overdue plan for financing transportation and public transit.

As described in the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission’s 2007 report entitled, Transportation Finance in Massachusetts: An Unsustainable System, the Commonwealth faces billions of dollars of deferred infrastructure maintenance and improvement costs — including repairs and upgrades to MBTA stations, tracks, and vehicles — and has been borrowing faster than it pays off the debt for such projects since the William Weld Administration.

Without such a plan, we will continue to dig ourselves deeper into debt, transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, T riders will hear more messages about “disabled trains” and “service delays” — and even with the proposed MBTA service cuts/fare increases — Mr. Davey can “almost guarantee” that the T will be facing the need for further cutbacks and fare increases in a year or two.



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12 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Not all of us are served by the MBTA...and we have needs too

    These are (hopefully) absurd examples of passing the buck for mitigation… but that’s exactly what the Mass. Legislature did when it saddled the MBTA — and its ridership — with the debt service to pay for the federally mandated transit improvements required as Big Dig mitigation.

    When the Cape gets nailed with billions in clean water act mitigation requirements, I look forward to your enthusiastic support for the state as a whole assuming those capital costs instead of the local community. After all, it’s only fair considering how much financial support Boston area infrastructure (MBTA, MWRA) has historically received from state coffers. Forget the MBTA, now it’s the Cape’s turn for some long overdue state subsidized infrastructure.

    • So wrong in so many ways

      This tired old canard is in tatters from being run up the flagpole so many times.

      A workable public transportation system benefits the entire state, not just the Boston area. When the entire state’s economy goes further down the tubes because nobody can get from one place to another, the Cape will feel the pain. When property values across the state dive because nobody can get to work, the Cape will feel the pain. When the travel time for people who live on the Cape and need to go anywhere off-Cape triples because public transportation is dead, the Cape will feel the pain.

      Meanwhile, nobody off-Cape — except perhaps vacation home owners — benefits from cleaning up the mess created by massive overbuilding atop a fragile and limited aquifer. Nobody but Cape Cod property owners had a voice in creating the building codes that encouraged such massive overbuilding (though a good argument can be made against the feds for pollution from the MMR).

      Interestingly, the link you posted highlights the role the GOP takes in opposing efforts to cleanup pollution and pursue polluters. Apparently you join the GOP in suggesting that the costs of undoing the environmental damage done by decades of abuse be borne by everyone except those who caused the damage. As far as I’m concerned, “you broke it, you fix it”.

      Massachusetts needs a viable public transportation system. Every resident of Massachusetts benefits by funding it.

      • A workable public transportation system benefits the entire state, not just the Boston area. When the entire state’s economy goes further down the tubes because nobody can get from one place to another, the Cape will feel the pain. When property values across the state dive because nobody can get to work, the Cape will feel the pain. When the travel time for people who live on the Cape and need to go anywhere off-Cape triples because public transportation is dead, the Cape will feel the pain.

        False dichotomy. The Cape finally getting a fair share of infrastructure development money doesn’t harm public transit.

        Meanwhile, nobody off-Cape — except perhaps vacation home owners — benefits from cleaning up the mess created by massive overbuilding atop a fragile and limited aquifer.

        Should I assume then you’re for full recapture with interest of the massive municipal/local/MWRA/MDC sewer infrastructure subsidies provided to the Boston area over the last 75+ years?

        Nobody but Cape Cod property owners had a voice in creating the building codes that encouraged such massive overbuilding (though a good argument can be made against the feds for pollution from the MMR).

        Laughable nonsense. Title 5 regulations came from the state.

        Apparently you join the GOP in suggesting that the costs of undoing the environmental damage done by decades of abuse be borne by everyone except those who caused the damage. As far as I’m concerned, “you broke it, you fix it”.

        Nope. I just want the this part of the state to get some return on it’s state taxes in terms of infrastructure development (just like Boston area has over and over and over and over…).

        • At the risk of wading...

          By “building codes” he almost certainly meant “zoning codes” which are, of course, local.

          What I’d like to see is your data that suggests that Boston area has gotten “return on it’s state taxes… over and over and over” whereas the Cape has not. My instinct [not a claim, just a hunch] is that, in fact, the two areas which get the most in expenditures per dollar paid in taxes are rural areas and areas which include a massive amount of second homes. The Cape isn’t the first — that’s the Berkshires. But, at least parts of the Cape may well be in the second category.

          • Yes, I meant "zoning codes"

            Cape Cod towns voted to overbuild. Nobody else.

          • Zoning is irrelevant.

            The state set the density guidelines for building density for using septic systems, not the locality. Locally, as towns approached build out, zoning bucked the normal trend and changed toward strictly low density development (excepting for state mandated affordable housing zoning exemptions).

            My instinct [not a claim, just a hunch] is that, in fact, the two areas which get the most in expenditures per dollar paid in taxes are rural areas and areas which include a massive amount of second homes.

            I was trying to be distinct about sewer infrastructure spending. Since you digress, I’ll take the liberty to point out that much of the Cape got massively screwed by the Chapter 70 formula which is inherently geographically redistributive. As the year round population density of the Cape exploded in the 90s and 00s, the Commonwealth treated the Cape as a cash cow. It didn’t meet it’s ethical obligation to assist in developing Cape infrastructure or modify Chapter 70 to handle rapidly expanding school districts (oddly though, Ch. 70 managed to hold harmless declining districts at our expense). Do I sound bitter? You bet, the Ch. 70 scam was was no accident.

            • Significant use of passive voice

              The year round population density of the Cape didn’t explode by itself, it did so because the voters of the Cape encouraged that explosion. The fragile ecosystem of the Cape couldn’t possibly handle that growth, and the growth was encouraged anyway.

              I invite you to offer evidence to support your apparent contention that the cities and towns of the Cape resisted the unsustainable growth, and were somehow coerced by external forces to accept it.

              • Whether they resisted it or not is irrelevant...

                The Boston suburbs (MWRA district) were developed. The Cape was developed following all the rules at time. The Cape deserves equal access to state subsidy of it’s infrastructure development. Period.

                • Bzzzt -- wrong answer

                  The Boston suburbs were not built atop a spit of sand with an exquisitely fragile aquifer. You know as well as I do that the same forces that today whine about the costs of mitigation were beating the drums for development when the massive overbuilding took place.

                  You keep using the passive voice: “The Cape was developed …”

                  The cities and towns where the overbuilding took place had a responsibility to protect their own environment. They failed to do that. Now they have a massive cleanup bill.

                  Putting public transportation in Massachusetts on a sustainable financial footing is enormously more important and justified than bailing out those who made terrible development decisions over the last few decades and now face the consequences of their own foolishness.

                  • Wow...your Boston parochialism know no bounds

                    First, the CLF lawsuit is not about the aquifer and drinking water. It’s about nitrogen loading of embayments.

                    Second, dubious “science”* behind the lawsuits (Massachusetts Estuaries Project) wasn’t even begun until 2001–well after the vast majority of the development was already in place. So no, there weren’t “terrible development decisions over the last few decades”. The identification of the extent and ground water source of the so called “problem” has only been recently modeled.

                    Third, septic system leachate has never in the history of the Clean Water Act been considered a point source of pollution. The CWA as enforced by the EPA against current septic system owners is impossible. These lawsuits attempt to end run the CWA jurisdiction limitations through a consent decree.

                    Fourth, the EPA/Commonwealth/County is seemingly complicit with the CLF in settling these lawsuits in bad faith in order to gain new regulatory control over septic system leachate. This by the way, is what has been raising hackles in Congress–and not just by Republicans.

                    Fifth, the previous consent decree between the CLF and the MWRA lead directly to state subsidies to improving sewer infrastructure within the MWRA region (I notice you conveniently omitted the “terrible development decisions” made within the MWRA region which polluted Boston harbor). Now it’s going to be the Cape’s turn for similar infrastructure subsidies. Anything else would amount to another round of craven pillage of Cape residents.

                    * Note, I say “dubious science” as the data and models were (and as far as I know continue to be) treated as proprietary even though they were created by a researchers at a public university. In my mind, this is not valid science and it far too susceptible to agenda oriented fraud.

                    • Yea, right

                      The Cape has a water and sewage problem because the Cape built too many homes and businesses for the Cape to support. I’ve lived on-Cape (in the mid-90s), the many issues with septic systems and building permits had been argued over for years then and have been widely debated since then. I’m sure you are more familiar with the specifics of the claim than me; so what. Whether it’s nitrogen loading of embayments, too much sewage in too small an area, too many cars, or any of the other problems that come with overbuilding, the fact remains that the voters of the Cape knowingly and irresponsibly promoted explosive over-building — and did so over the objections of rational people across the Cape and the state who encouraged them to slow down. Funny enough, the same people who’s cry was “build build build” also opposed spending ANY money on public transportation then — as you do now.

                      Today, surprise surprise, there is a price to pay. You can handwave, insult, and dance as fast you want to, and it won’t change these facts:

                      1. All of Massachusetts, including the Cape, desperately needs a functioning public transportation system, and,
                      2. The public transportation system of Massachusetts desperately needs additional funding, and
                      3. However much (or little) cleanup is needed on Cape Cod is rightly the responsibility of the cities and towns that created the mess being cleaned up.

                      Just for the sake of interest — do you also challenge the science of global climate change?

                    • The Cape has a water and sewage problem because the Cape built too many homes and businesses for the Cape to support.

                      No, it has a sewage problem because the state failed to support in Cape in infrastructure development much earlier over other portions of the Commonwealth.

                      the fact remains that the voters of the Cape knowingly and irresponsibly promoted explosive over-building — and did so over the objections of rational people across the Cape and the state who encouraged them to slow down

                      I doubt it wasn’t nearly so clear cut at the time that there were issues with building density. But you seem to think that current resident population bears the sole responsibility for the largely unknowable consequences of zoning decisions that date back to the 1950-1980s. How very progressive of you.

                      Funny enough, the same people who’s cry was “build build build” also opposed spending ANY money on public transportation then — as you do now.

                      Outright misrepresentation. I’ll thank you to stop putting words in my mouth.

                      1. All of Massachusetts, including the Cape, desperately needs a functioning public transportation system, and,

                      Yep. Funny though how the Cape only receives back a small fraction of it’s mass transit earmarked %1 sales tax contribution.

                      2. The public transportation system of Massachusetts desperately needs additional funding, and

                      Modest fare hikes, and regional assessments. It’s still a bargain to the rider and the local community.

                      3. However much (or little) cleanup is needed on Cape Cod is rightly the responsibility of the cities and towns that created the mess being cleaned up.

                      Yet the MDC/MWRA over development and management failures which resulted in the Boston harbor cleanup and sewer infrastructure overhaul gets a pass on state subsidies? NFW. It’s the Cape’s turn for some reasonable infrastructure subsidies.

                      Just for the sake of interest — do you also challenge the science of global climate change?

                      Nope, that’s real science–the data and models are fully open for critique.

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