While this report is a lot to ingest, I think it has something for everyone (whether you’re on the “Reform Before Revenue” or the “Revenue Before Reform” side of things). In fact, the panel themselves highlights this on Slide 5:
Many past reports on the MBTA have attempted to quantify the financial needs of the agency. This report is different. It reject the ‘reform vs revenue’ debate because the MBTA needs both.
My initial reaction reading through the report was that while it didn’t make any body-checks against the politicians who helped the push the agency to the brink of collapse, I think it takes a fairly round approach to all of the areas that need to be addressed – management, revenue, executive changes, legislative changes & oversight. As The Globe reports:
Rafael Mares, a senior lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation and public transit advocate, said he sees hope in those findings, even as the Baker administration’s rhetoric has focused more intently on reform than revenue.
“I’m encouraged by what I find in the report,” he said. “I’m discouraged by the story they tell about the report.”
So with all of that in mind, here’s my fast gut reactions to the full report:
- The Panel finds a lot of fault with the T’s management. The laundry list is quite long – the revolving door of GMs hasn’t built sustainable vision or momentum; they haven’t used their full capital budget each year; they haven’t fostered a “customer-centric” mindset; cost controls are non-existent; goals are not built around manageable metrics; absenteeism is rampant. Overall I felt the report was measured & fair in its criticisms – read separately from the MBTA, we would except any government agency to be run along the lines of what the Panel proposes.
- The Panel pushes for the State to take over the T’s Big Dig debt – While they say this is not crushing the T in the way it’s typically characterized, they recommend the state do it to free up more money in the T’s operating budget.
- The Panel pushes for sensible transit planning & capital plans – The Panel was blunt in pointing out that most expansion plans to date have been hackneyed, short sighted and often happen in fits & starts. They recommend the T put together 5 & 20 year transit and capital plans outlining how they’ll address the regions transit needs.
- The Panel doesn’t close the door on new revenues – While they push for structural reform in the T, they do say that the State should be a willing investor into major capital programs (expansions, new stations, etc), that assessments should be reconsidered, that special taxation districts should be an option, and that the cap on fares should be removed. The Panel also pushes for the T to bring in more non-fare revenue by expanding its property development, concessions, parking and other possible revenue streams.
- The Panel pushes for fiscal responsibility in the T’s pension plan – They cite the large unfunded liability the T currently has and pushes for a full independent audit and transparency
- The Panel pushes for legislative changes that would allow the T to use more cost-effective planning & acquisitions techniques, to bring them inline with other state agencies.
- The Panel goes into details around a few “structural failure” case studies such as the 25+ year acquisition of new Orange & Red Line cars and the redevelopment of the Government Center station.
Overall I thought the report was good and while it takes on the operational failures of the T, it doesn’t contradict many of the financially focused studies of the T from the past.
While I didn’t watch Charlie’s press conference on the report, my reading of the report leads me to hope that we can get some meaningful reform & improvements out of this crises. I think this winter showed that we can’t just abandon the T and all jump in our cars – we need the T to be an engine for commerce & development. It’s also needed if Boston 2024 can pull off a miracle and get the voters behind its Olympic bid.
Anyways, that’s my $0.10 on a first read. I’ll need to give this more time after work, but until this I’d like my fellow BMGers to weigh in.