So we are not alone in our transit woe. Yet, as far as solutions go, our political masters seem to be behind the curve. Transit issues dominated the legislative session this year in New York, where their MTA was braced to impose drastic service cuts and fare hikes before their legislature passed a mega-tax bill to bail their ailing network out. Their approach stands in stark contrast to the debate on Beacon Hill. Whereas our legislature only wants one tax – the sales tax – to solve all our fiscal problems, the New York MTA bailout bill included a payroll tax paid by employers in the surrounding region, fees on drivers and vehicles, a taxi surcharge, and a new 5% tax on car rentals. I’m not arguing more taxes are better but New York, which is dealing with a fiscal crisis even worse than ours, did see the merit in dedicated solutions to transit outside of addressing the overall fiscal crisis. In Massachusetts, our legislature, in its political wisdom (i.e. in wanting to avoid looking like they support many taxes) has decided to conflate the fiscal and transportation crises.
What is equally noteworthy about New York is that all these new taxes for transit passed in a New York Senate that only has a two-seat Democratic majority and only went blue for the first time in decades this term. To get it done required deals to be cut with a lot of dissenting Democratic Senators who will face opposition next year and yet they pulled the trick because they needed a fix and strong legislative leadership fought for it.
Compare that to our own Senate, where Senate President Murray has a 35-5 Democratic majority. She claimed she didn’t have the votes and made sure that today the Senate proved her point overwhelmingly. But Murray could get 21 votes for a bill abolishing cars if she wanted to. A gas tax increase would have been cake if she was so inclined. That vote today had less to do with the merits of the case for a gas tax increase and more to do with wanting to show Patrick he wasn’t going to get his way on this.
Looking again at New York, when the original outlines of the MTA bailout plan were unveiled, Mayor Bloomberg was there at the front backing solutions. Contrast that to our wildly popular Mayor Menino, who has been notably silent on the MBTA of late, and I do start to wonder whether anyone in our State really cares about transit.
But when looking at the problems besetting transit across America you can’t help but think it starts beyond State Houses and requires a federal solution. The Brookings paper cited above discusses how the $8.4 billion in federal stimulus funds devoted to transit will only cover capital. It goes on to discuss how federal rules in place since 1988 prevent federal funds from being spent on operating costs – the day-to-day expenses of running these expensive transit networks.
The irony is that as more capital gets poured into transit to expand systems, the more funds will be needed to operate those expanded systems in the future. So it’s high time to change the rules and get some federal funds to cover operating costs as well. Why not start with the stimulus money, much of which has yet to be dispensed. The stimulus package provided a lot of funds for health care and education operating budgets – to keep teachers and nurses from getting canned ostensibly. Why not some operating help for transit then – are not jobs on the T worth saving too (as long as the employees don’t use cell phones while driving trains)? Governor Patrick – now here is a reason for your Washington office to continue to exist.
But its gets worse when considering how Washington treats transit projects in general when compared to road and air travel infrastructure. Currently, the feds pick up 90 percent of the bill for new airports, 80 percent of the bill for road projects but only a meager 50 percent for mass transit. So the feds compound the capital/operating imbalance even further by forcing States/transit authorities to stump up for half the costs for building new transit projects, raising their own indebtedness, which then has to be settled through debt service payments that score as, you guessed it, operating expenses, for which the feds give nothing. Maybe the Carmen’s Union gets fat pension deals, but in the end, the problem with transit starts at the top of the government heap. Massachusetts needs solutions at home, thus the gas tax increase makes sense. But, its high-time Washington gave transit a better overall deal.
And hopefully, some ideas percolating in Congress could provide help soon. It seems that the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar, left some scribbles around on what the next big transport bill could look like. Transit equity topped the list – meaning an equal percentage share of federal funds backing transport as for roads and airports. Hopefully this won’t just mean 50% for all, and hell, I’d like to see transit get 90 and roads get 50 for awhile.
No doubt though, the vested highway lobby will be out with knives to fend off this attack on their vaulted status. Thus, it would be good to see our Congressional delegation leading the charge for transit equity as the transport bill makes its way through the process. Congressman Capuano – you’re on the Committee and your one of Speaker Pelosi’s favorites so I’m looking at you in particular to get the ball rolling on this.
The transit crisis is of course man-made. Solving it is not rocket science. It just takes commitment and care. I’d like to see some Mass pols show us the commitment and care needed to make the difference.