Almost a decade after the Big Dig’s completion, the toxic legacy of the bloated highway project still haunts the state. Debt from Central Artery-related projects gnaws away at the MBTA’s budget, forcing fare hikes and service cuts; residual public distrust over the mishandling of the project undercuts efforts to build political support for roads and bridges.
It is time, though, to move on. The state is making progress at reform. A 2009 law consolidated the transportation agencies, and the organizational culture is changing. In one of the most visible signs of change, the Turnpike is even phasing out costly toll collectors in favor of open-road tolling. There is always room to improve, and the state should never stop seeking savings, but the administration and MassDOT secretary Richard Davey are taking meaningful steps to restore public confidence.
Now, as part of his ambitious budget plan, Governor Deval Patrick has asked the Legislature to approve roughly $1 billion in additional revenue for the Commonwealth’s roads, bridges, and transit systems. It would be the biggest infusion of cash into transportation in years. Most of the funds, though, would just go toward clearing the backlog of pent-up needs: new cars for the Red Line and Orange Line, where equipment is decades old and increasingly unreliable; repairs to roadway bridges across the state; a new highway viaduct in Springfield; and the long-promised extension of the Green Line into Somerville.
These are critical investments that will bolster the state’s competitiveness. A dependable transportation system is key to attracting and retaining workers, opening up new neighborhoods for transit-oriented housing, and creating a more environmentally sound economy. As the Legislature weighs the transportation plan against the education components of Patrick’s plan, the need to catch up on overdue transportation investments should be the most urgent.
Patrick has also asked for money for several expansion projects, with a laudable emphasis on underserved areas. The plan would fund commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River, which would link a struggling region to Boston’s more vigorous economy. He also wants the state to buy smaller trainsets of self-propelled rail cars called “diesel multiple units,” which would permit more frequent, subway-like service on commuter rail tracks near Boston. These DMUs could improve service on the busy routes through close-in suburbs, but also on the Fairmount Line through some neglected parts of Dorchester. Patrick is also proposing passenger rail service to Springfield and the Berkshires — projects that seem like second-tier priorities but still hold promise, especially if the state can forge a partnership with Connecticut to share the costs of rail expansion.
Lawmakers can’t let the ghost of the Big Dig continue to thwart the state’s needs forever.
Finally, Patrick’s plan would also end one of the more irresponsible fiscal practices inherited from the Big Dig era. Since the 1990s, the state has been paying some transportation employees with borrowed money. MassDOT has already taken steps toward eliminating that practice. Taxpayers won’t notice any difference when the rest of the agency’s employees move off the capital budget, but it will save money in the long run.
Raiding the capital budget for salaries was merely a symptom of the profligate Big Dig culture. Lawmakers should certainly never forget the lessons of that debacle. But nor can they let its ghost continue to thwart the state’s needs forever.
Tomorrow: A look at early childhood education