At some point, we reach a reckoning point for political and policy wisdom: The rewards for long-term thinking come to fruition (though often under-appreciated); and the bills for political cowardice and short-sightedness come due.
How long ago did we know the MBTA was in trouble? How did we get to this most glorious day in this, the best of all possible worlds?
As far back as I can remember doing this blog, we’ve been talking about the Big Dig debt piled on the T, and how service was suffering. It’s been bumbling along seemingly forever. Back in 2006 we knew things were deteriorating. From BoMag’s “The Little Transit System That Couldn’t”:
More cause for alarm are the complaints about the Red Line, once the system’s crown jewel. In one recent 30-day period, even more trains on the Red Line were disabled (11) than on the Green (10). (During the same period, the Orange Line reported four disabled trains and the Blue Line three.) “My ride in was HELLISH this morning,” reads an entry on BadTransit.com, a website popular with increasingly disgruntled MBTA commuters. “It took one hour to get from North Quincy to Park Street!” Another Red Line rider tells of a stifling subway car smelling of rotten eggs. Later in the day, this same traveler took another ride. “Wouldn’t you know, must have been the same train. Still no A/C. Still smelled like rotten eggs.”
This is the status quo ante that we’re supposed to be happy to return to in Charlie Baker’s plan.
REFORM before revenue. The Senate has consistently applied this philosophy in its reform proposals for transportation. This philosophy seeks to ensure that tax- and toll-payer money is spent effectively and efficiently so we don’t pump new funding into a broken system. It has allowed the Legislature to advance an agenda that ensures we aren’t leaving scarce resources on the table because of inefficiencies and poor planning.
The idea that we needed both reform and revenue was too much. Indeed, one might need revenue to execute reform properly: It takes money to bring contracting and project managers in-house — an investment in on-time and under-budget performance. Did we ever get that?
Likely result: House and Senate squabble for a while, then pass a watered-down transportation bill; Governor vetoes all or part of it; House and Senate override, thereby saddling the state with a transportation “reform” that solves a few short-term problems but doesn’t really address the long-term situation. Five years down the road, here we go again.
To its credit, the legislature did streamline and consolidate the transportation bureaucracy — an improvement in political accountability, at least.
In 2013 Gov. Patrick proposed a $1.9B investment plan in transit. And Sen. President Therese Murray and Speaker DeLeo were terribly proud, even defiant, at putting forth a patently inadequate funding package:
Murray said the plan holds the MBTA and MassDOT accountable for “delivering savings or revenue and working toward contributing the same share of their budget.” Murray went on to say that the Patrick administration’s proposal “… will have deep and biting effects on people in every community across the Commonwealth,” because it would raise the income tax and eliminate 44 tax exemptions for constituents. “For many in the Commonwealth, their paycheck is spent long before they even bring it home, and raising the income tax will affect the ability of low and middle-income individuals to make ends meets. Now is not the time for us to make their paychecks even smaller, or to threaten their ability to provide for their families.”
What about getting to work? Is there anyone in Massachusetts feeling “deep and biting effects” right now?
“The problem is you are asking people everywhere in the Commonwealth to pay, and not actually delivering anything for them at home. The reason that I think that is bad politics is, at that level the legislature is going to be back here in a few years and … everybody [is] going to say ‘What happened? You just asked us for $500 million, and I don’t see any change,’” Patrick said.
Kristina Egan, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group that had pushed for Patrick’s funding plan, called the proposal “woefully inadequate.”
“We have an unprecedented opportunity to make a transportation fix for the next generation, and I’m worried that we’re squandering it here,” Egan said. “It feels like this package is locking in chronic underfunding.”
And here’s what I wrote in 2013: “The DeLeo-Murray Feckless Fare Increase”
When your train breaks down; when your suspension bottoms out; when you couldn’t get to work or to an appointment because of our congested, rusting transit system … you’ll know who to blame.
Has there been any reflection by those who were in the fight back then? In a recent Commonwealth podcast that will make transit advocates burst a blood vessel, former Senator and Transportation co-chair and reform-before-revenue adherent Steven Baddour says he’ll never take the commuter rail, and then has the gall to complain that not enough attention has been paid to traffic problems for those who drive:
“We need a traffic czar here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, someone whose pure focus is through-put, getting people from A to B as quickly as possible,” Baddour said.
My dude, this was your job.
The only thing that has woken up our legislature seems to be the defeat of two of the Speaker’s lieutenants to primary challenges; and the current ferocity of anger at the MBTA’s decrepitude — felt “inside the building” of the State House. Apparently it takes a total crisis, not mere common sense, to be felt “inside the building”.
I’m mildly hopeful that a new generation of legislators are impatient with the legislature’s (and this administration’s) typical can’t-do attitude. But we have to assess the consequences of yesterday’s rationalizations and political poses. Those folks, those leaders, those ideas, political tropes and calculations — they let us down. Yesterday’s leaders failed us today. And here we are.