With politicians and business leaders calling public transit a system in crisis, Governor Charlie Baker wants $50 million more for fixes to the MBTA.
When it comes to the T, Baker’s definition of urgency feels a lot like an advisory about a broken down train on the Orange Line: You know there will be at least a 15-minute delay. And all you can do is call Uber or Lyft or mill around the platform and wait.
Meanwhile, you are paying more for that privilege, after a fare increase went into effect on July 1 — just as T riders experience delays and other frustrations due to the June 11 derailment of a Red Line train at JFK/UMass station.
To the Baker administration’s credit, it has improved financial management at the T, negotiated better labor contracts, and made progress on the oft-delayed Green Line extension. Unlike the procession of governors before him who promised to expand the commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River, Baker is actually moving forward with that project.
But a bolder, more urgent vision to meet the region’s needs would involve connecting the Red and Blue lines. Bolder would be moving toward regional rail service, including expedited construction of West Station in Allston. Bolder means pushing the Legislature to increase the gas tax to provide a new revenue stream for all transportation needs, not just the T. Bolder means congestion pricing, to ease rush hour traffic.
And for riders of the existing, aging core subway system, bolder would mean making other tough, possibly unpopular decisions, like shutting down more of the T to hasten repairs. But Baker is as cautious as ever, even after the continuing delays and fallout from the June 11 debacle. It took until June 19 for him to personally inspect the damage. After seeing it for himself, he called for the extra $50 million, so the T could hire more people to work on construction projects and infrastructure repairs. He’s also asking the T to “explore” a speeded-up repair schedule, which would involve major service disruptions. But he set no deadline for reporting back on a decision that would speed things up. The wariness over major disruptions certainly makes sense — New York City recently abandoned a plan to shut down an entire subway line for 15 months for repairs — but the idea at least warrants a serious discussion with all options on the table.
Under its current plan, according to MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak, the T is now 2-and-a-half years into a 15-year timeline for bringing the system into a “state of good repair.” That leaves 12-and-a-half years to go. Some commuters will be ready for The Ride by then.
According to Poftak, the T has identified $10.1 billion in capital needs. Meanwhile, it has a fully funded five-year $8 billion capital investment program. T officials say they are “still identifying” funding sources beyond those five years. Still, Poftak insists the T doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem — as in, it’s hard to spend the money it has. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the T spent about $1 billion on capital needs. It hopes to increase spending to $1.5 billion this fiscal year. Why is it so difficult? Poftak explains it like this: If someone gave you $1 million to renovate your house, but said you had to do it all tomorrow — could you? Given the hiring, planning, and scheduling required — maybe not.
It’s reasonable to ask critics calling for more revenue how, exactly, the extra cash they want for the T would help make the subway lines more reliable, and whether they’d be comfortable with the shutdowns the administration says could be needed to spend money more quickly. In the meantime, though, there are other good uses the T could find for more revenue: closing the operating budget deficit; paying overtime for station clean-up; hiring more inspectors and managers; and paying down debt service.
Whether it’s by hiring more staff and contractors or committing to faster but more disruptive project delivery, there should be some way to speed up upgrades to the T’s crumbling infrastructure, from stations to parking garages. As we’ve said before on this page: Massachusetts deserves better. Finally, business and political leaders are starting to demand it.
Of course, it’s not all up to the governor, and any revenue-raising plan will likely require legislative approval. But it’s the governor who has the biggest bully pulpit, and instead of using it to tell the public that the T just needs better management, he should be making the case for the bold, transformative investments it needs.