If you are not from Massachusetts you are probably unaware of a severe cash shortfalls one of its agencies is experiencing. Massachusetts and all of the other 49 states, as-well-as the federal government, is tasked with supplying certain services to all its residents. One of those is transportation. That transportation consists of all the roads with their bridges, all the airports, all the seaports, and all forms of public transportation. Massachusetts is currently experiencing a serious budget problem with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). The MBTA serves over 70 eastern Massachusetts communities. The MBTA says it has $130 million shortage. To deal with that shortfall it is saying it will make serious service cutbacks along with fare increases.
The MBTA is a state agency no different from the state police, Public Utilities, Parks and Recreation, and dozens of others. Each is funded by a line item in the annual state budget. That budget is put forth by Governor Deval Patrick and passed by the state’s representatives and senators after they have made their modifications. Included in that budget is the MBTA’s budget. Massachusetts also had another half-dozen or so regional transportation authorities that also receive funding from the state. They include RTAs in the cities of Lawrence, Lowell, Fall River, Brockton, Worcester, Fitchburg, Springfield, and Greenfield. Each of those areas supplies bus transportation to those cities and surrounding communities.
Massachusetts politicians have been extremely quiet on the financial troubles of the MBTA. We have heard absolutely nothing from Gov. Patrick or any of the state’s senators and representatives. Considering they are charged with overseeing the welfare of our transportation this is an unacceptable situation.
The MBTA managed to gain the $130 million shortfall for a variety of reasons. One thing MBTA officials point out is that they collect roughly 35 cents at the fare box for every dollar spent. They go on further to say how that number is low compared to other cities. Studies have shown that Massachusetts does collect less than other cities. But comparisons must end there and viewed as unequal. That is because things like capital expenses, age of infrastructure, size of population served, debt service, and many other factors vary greatly from city-to-city. The MBTA has the oldest subway in the United States. That all by itself is hugely problematic.
In the 1980s and 1990s Massachusetts aggressively expanded its commuter rail system. Boston, unlike cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore, has an extensive track system that lends itself to commuter rail. But about half of its current system consisted of abandoned or freight only tracks that required upgrading or complete rebuilding. Additionally, the MBTA expanded its commuter rail diesels and coaches. It had inherited an aging fleet of rail diesel cars from the B&M Railroad that needed replacement. But that happened over 25 years ago which happens to be the expected lifetime of such equipment. Simply said, the entire fleet needs replacement.
In the past several years the MBTA upgraded the Blue Line by rebuilding stations and replacing the subway cars. But the entire Orange Line fleet and half the Red Line and Green Line fleet also needs replacement.
The Green Line is the most problematic of all. The ability of any rapid transportation system to serve the public is measured by how many passenger per hour can be served over any portion of its track. The Green Line’s tunnel from Kenmore to Government Center is currently serving all four of the system’s routes. The volume of traffic exceeds the ability of that stretch of tunnel to allow the passage of trolleys. The solution is a simple, yet very costly, one. A second tunnel must be built. Anything short of that will not allow for any growth in Green Line traffic.
As for the MBTA’s bus system, its structure is almost completely outdated. Many of the existing bus routes are leftovers from the 1960s when the MBTA took over the area’s private bus companies. For example, the 85 route goes from Kendall Square Cambridge to Spring Hill Somerville. There is not a particularly high demand for this route. If you look at the route two questions come to mind. First, why not extend the Cambridge end from Kendall Square to Lechmere and then on the other end extend the route to Davis Square, a short distance from Spring Hill. Or maybe this is a route that simply needs to be eliminated. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the 66 route that connects Harvard Square to Dudley Square. This is a heavily used route that, as anyone who travels it knows, frequently has standing room only on its buses.
That the MBTA is threatening draconian service cuts is not only unreasonable, it shows just how miserably they have failed. They are using this scare tactic at this time because rising gas prices along with increased patronage gives them the feeling that they have leverage. It is not leverage that is needed, it is honesty. These managers are at the very least disingenuous and more likely, outright dishonest.
These are but a few examples of the MBTA’s extreme mismanagement of its system. Mismanagement always results in overspending. This mismanagement is not just within the MBTA itself, but from those whose job it is to oversee the MBTA, the governor, his counsel, and others.
The solution is not easy but it is not all that complicated either. First of all, the Massachusetts government must step in and assume the $130 million shortfall and provide more funding in the short-term. Next, the Gov. Patrick needs to step in and replace all the political hacks that are entrenched there and replace them with transportation experts, people who have degrees in urban planning and transportation along with a long history of experience in those areas. He must put an end to the history of patronage that has hamstrung this system and kept it from making desperately needed progress.
The state of Massachusetts is responsible to its people to make a comprehensive study detailing what must be done now and in the future to keep the MBTA running at its present level and at an increased level in the future as demand requires. This means the governor and other officials are going to have to come up with how much money will be required to take the antiquated MBTA from the 20th Century, where it now exists, into the reality of the 21st Century. This likely means an increase of the state’s tax on gasoline. But if the public is provided a full disclosure of the costs involved in running the MBTA, and the other RTAs, the public will accept, if begrudgingly, the necessity of a small tax increase.
The state of Massachusetts, like the federal government, is dishonest with its citizens. It keeps large amounts of vital information the public needs to make well-reasoned decisions. The government officials do this for political expediency or because they do not believe the public will understand what they are saying. This sort of dishonesty must end now.