Pardon me for riding the same MBTA hobby horse again. Several recent events and trends have me back up.
The gist of it is why aren’t the big kids — Gov. Baker, Speaker DeLeo, or MassDOT Board Chair Stephanie Pollack — getting real about T problems and solutions? Instead, we just got yet another 9 to 10% system-wide fare hike. That rise hurts the middle class and poor but does absolutely nothing to solve or prevent T financial, maintenance or expansion issues.
By the bye, I just did this rant for 24 minutes at Left Ahead. You can hear me whining and snorting and save your eyes by clicking to listen.
Stupid Pol Tricks
Sure, the T has lots of money problems. Much of it’s $9 billion in debt and $7 billion in deferred maintenance. It’s pretty easy to see the role that the Big Dig debt and legislative stupidity played here. In fact you can check the themes and dollar amounts in the massive Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report here.
One of my recurring T rants has to do with huge State House blunder they refuse to fix or even acknowledge. The short version is that the legislature looked at billions of Big Dig overruns and got far too clever. They moved the debt to the T with the fantasy that the never-ending growth spiral of sales-tax revenue would offset those costs; just give the MBTA a percentage point every year and you’re done. Let’s have a drink and celebrate.
When sales growth stagnated and dropped, the forward-funding fantasy evaporated. Rather than admit the blunder and fix it, the governors and legislative leaders keep asking the T why it can’t manage it’s costs. Meanwhile from 22 to 34% of its budget continues to go to debt service, preventing maintenance and expansion expenditures.
The Real Questions
My hobby horse ride is about why can’t the big shots ask the important (and hard) questions. The parenthetical words really address that.
We need some vision here. Hey, Charlie Baker. Hey Stephanie Pollack. Hey, Robert DeLeo.
When the T failed for weeks running in the last TGOT-level dreadful winter, our governor’s answer with typical bean counter gutlessness. He handpicked predictable task force members and gave them a couple of weeks to “solve” the T’s problems with action items.
They asked no big questions.
Likewise, at MBTA public hearings, the machers who were in charge funneled the questions into just as predictable sets. How do we cut costs? How do we ensure maintenance so the tracks don’t freeze. Yadda yadda.
No one asked then or sense in public:
- What do we want from mass transit?
- What are we willing to do to make that happen?
So far the Baker, Pollack, DeLeo responses have been the inane it’s-only-common-sense one. The conclusion before they start is that riders want safe, reliable, clean trains, buses and trolleys. Done and done.
Not so fast kiddies.
Getting More Real
How about asking for some modern and possible big ideas? Consider:
- Less road congestion
- Less pollution
- Less noise
- More frequent, smaller trains and subways
- Fewer wrecks and slain pedestrians
- Cheap or free fares
Those are not Utopian goals. We can do those if we envision and demand them. Then the bigger question is what are we willing to pay to get them.
Wowzers, it was six years ago almost to the day that Mike Dukakis talked T futures and present with me. He shared much of that vision. We differed on one point, which in hindsight was minor. I proposed a free T (fare-less) while he wanted it very cheap (a buck). We both wanted it too inexpensive to bring your big, honking SUV into town.
I contend that if we accept that those goals above are really what we want from mass transit that we can make it happen, wipe out the T debt, relieve the commonwealth from paying for MBTA costs, and get those major benefits.
Key it all is dropping the emotional dams. The car addicted need a slap or two upside the head.
Note that I do drive a car, typically once a week on a grocery run to a few stores. Otherwise, I walk a lot, take commuter rail a few times, a bus or a subway on occasion. I also bike frequently. I stand before you multi-modal.
At public hearings, I hear car junkies deriding mass-transit advocates. Oh, no, my Lord, they want something I don’t get. It’s not fair! (Stomp feet.) Click around just a little and find countless reports on just how heavily cars and trucks are subsidized, how little their gas taxes, excise taxes and such go toward what highway construction, maintenance and policing actually cost.
Apply the same economics to the T. Then ask if you get all those benefits of safety, pollution, noise, congestion and such, that is it worth?
I contend that you could make the T so desirable in cost, frequency, cleanliness and safety that the vast majority would want to take it instead of cars. In fact, I hold that we should make it free, and divert the fare collection costs to cleaning, safety and maintenance. Done and done, as the pols would have it. Except this time it would be real.
This would never happen unless we demand it. The first step is getting the big kids to ask the big questions instead of hiding from the ideas.