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The Boston Globe

Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

State’s short-term fix won’t solve MBTA’s ails

Does Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey have the toughest job in state government? Smart and upbeat after nearly a year in the post, Davey still says it’s the best job. But the 39-year-old manager is confronting probably the greatest gap between public expectations and available resources of any service the state provides today. And he represents two warring constituencies — highway drivers and transit commuters — who are blind to their common interests.

This week the Legislature coughed up a short-term fix for the MBTA, appropriating $51 million from car inspection fees and unused snow removal funds courtesy of our freakishly mild winter — obviously not a sustainable source of revenue. But just when Davey might have taken a breath, two new studies presented stark evidence of how critically overburdened the state’s public transit system is right now — never mind how poorly equipped it is to meet the demands of a growing economy. And it wasn’t just crunchy transit advocates who were sounding the alarm, but downtown developers and some of the state’s largest employers. They understand that a creaky, crowded, unreliable public transit system is as big a speed bump to economic growth as the usual bugaboos of burdensome regulations and confiscatory taxes.

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The studies — by the Urban Land Institute and the Metropolitan Action Planning Council — demonstrate what should be good news: Public transit is so popular that demand for it is growing faster than the overall population. MBTA ridership is at its highest peak since 1946: 1.3 million riders a day. Transit-oriented development — the anti-sprawl movement that seeks to concentrate building near public transportation — is taking off: 45 million square feet of office space and 33,000 housing units already are under construction or planned within a half-mile of transit stations. The studies say the T should plan to serve a minimum of 100,000 additional riders per day in the next 10 years.

This is where the rubber hits the rails.

Three of the four main MBTA lines already are operating at or over capacity. Only the Blue Line is exempt, and that’s because the state just spent $600 million expanding platforms and adding cars. South Station can’t jam in another commuter train. Regional transit bus lines don’t run on weekends or after 7 p.m., hardly acceptable for the flex-time offices of the future.

The studies identify five unsurprising “hot spots” of transit congestion, from the Longwood Medical Area to Kendall Square, but the need extends to suburbs like South Weymouth, where developers are building a massive residential and commercial project next to a commuter rail station at the former naval station there.

The only relief in sight is a grim calculus of supply-and-demand balancing: Either another recession slows growth in employment, or the rider experience becomes so awful that commuters flee the system. Davey already expects the first ridership dip in 16 months to occur next month, when an average 23-percent fare hike takes effect. “If we don’t find a long-term solution we’re going to price ourselves out of the market and drive people back to their cars,” he said in an interview.

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Jim Keefe is president of Trinity Financial, a major developer with projects at Ashmont Station and North Station. He is rolling the dice by offering less than one parking space per resident, reassuring his investors and potential tenants that the MBTA will provide the mobility they need. “Should that system become imperiled I’d have to wonder if these projects can be viable,’’ he said at a forum last week.

The Legislature needs to hear more from Keefe and other businessmen like him. The debate over the stopgap funding included the usual acrimony between mostly urban advocates and those who feel their constituents get little benefit from public transit. Never mind that an efficient transit system is a boon for everyone who drives, because it keeps millions of other carbon-spewing vehicles off the roads.

As for revenue relief, an increase in the gas tax is the obvious solution — and one almost no one dares utter. “Our message is: no more money unless something changes,” said Republican Senate leader Bruce Tarr during this week’s debate.

Is it any wonder Davey is the state’s fourth transportation secretary in five years?

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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