This snowy winter has given us a dismaying real-life example of disruption that comes with an unreliable public transit system. And now the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation has provided a must-read account of why the MBTA has devolved into a cold-weather basket case.
Together, they make it clear that Massachusetts can’t allow the T simply to lurch along at its current winter-jinxed pace. Already there’s one political narrative developing: A lack of resources alone is the problem.
But though more funding is part of the long-term solution, without also changing the agency itself, that would be like pouring oil into a sieve. Nor is there a single reform that is sufficient to put the troubled agency back on its rails.
“It is not just an operational budget deficit, it is not just an enormous backlog for maintenance and capital investment, it is not just shortcomings of the management process,” says Eileen McAnneny, executive director of the foundation. “It is the sum total of all of it that’s really eye-opening.”
So what to do?
The most interesting idea I’ve heard to date comes from the Pioneer Institute: A short-term finance control board to oversee the agency, modeled on the successful state effort to revive Springfield after that municipality ran onto a fiscal reef. Properly done, such a board can bring a laser-like focus to real problems and make tough decisions that otherwise get kicked down the road. In Springfield, the board took an insolvent city and put it back on its feet, and without being vested with any greater power than the municipality previously had.
“A control board that has authority over finance and operations can instill accountability and could rebuild public confidence,” says Steve Lisauskas, who served as executive director of the Springfield effort from 2007 to 2009. “That could work very effectively and could set up the T for long-term success.”
One shorter range priority for such a board: Developing a workable schedule for getting the T’s current equipment into a state of good repair, an area where the agency has been sliding backwards. Since 2006, the backlog of work required to bring the MBTA up to that status has grown from an estimated $3 billion to $6.7 billion. And even that figure likely doesn’t reflect the true backlog costs, the foundation says, “because its [state of good repair] database has been inoperative for years.”
The board would also need the power to pause or halt planned service expansions while the T regroups, and to reorient the T’s focus from expanding its service areas to improving core functions.
And what of the T’s generous benefits, retirement age, and pensions? A control board shouldn’t have the power to change those by itself — that wouldn’t be fair to the unions — but if it finds that those arrangements are seriously hobbling the agency, it should recommend changes to the Legislature for public debate.
One power such a board does need is the ability to contract out for services and repairs. Jim O’Leary, who ran the T under conservative Democrat Ed King and liberal Democrat Mike Dukakis, says contracting out was a vital management tool during his day, something the T used for things ranging from station and bus cleaning to major overhauls of the track system.
However, the state’s anti-privatization Pacheco Law, passed in 1993, has rendered it very difficult to pursue further savings by contracting out. O’Leary, the taxpayers foundation, and Pioneer all say freeing the T from Pacheco constraints is important. Former state Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, meanwhile, argues that T management already has the latitude to push ahead with contracting out in a variety of areas and should go boldly forth, dealing with union challenges if and when they occur. Still, clear legislative authority would obviously be preferable.
The T also needs performance metrics for its maintenance efforts. Former Inspector General Greg Sullivan, now director of research at Pioneer, says that though the T’s wages aren’t out of line with other transit agencies, the number of man-hours the agency devotes to maintenance and repair of its light rail (Green Line) and bus fleets are far above the big transit-system average.
The T can’t be fixed overnight. But a finance control board is an important first stop on the road — or rather, the rails — back to reliability.