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Editorial

MBTA crisis can’t be ignored; time to tackle ‘Big Dig culture’

STATE TRANSPORTATION Secretary Richard Davey can’t solve the MBTA’s financial woes on his own, and the Patrick administration should stop acting as if he can.

In his State of the State speech earlier this year, Patrick conspicuously avoided mentioning the transit agency’s looming deficit, now estimated at $159 million. Instead, it’s Davey, the former T general manager whom Patrick tapped to run the state transportation department last year, who’s been out front in the public discussion on scaling back services and raising fares. The transit agency’s final recommendation to its board will presumably include a significant fare hike - though not quite as stiff as the 43 percent increase described in one of the T’s revenue proposals - and some service cuts, though nowhere near as many as in the worst-case scenario floated by T management. And yet even with these necessary adjustments, the T, after years of serial debt refinancings, will still struggle to keep up with its minimum payments to creditors.

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Indeed, this year’s budget crisis at the T is only the prelude to next year’s budget crisis - and part of a far broader transportation debt problem dating back to the Big Dig. In an effort to spread around the dire consequences of outrageous Big Dig cost overruns, the Legislature assigned the T more than $3 billion in outstanding debt in 2000. This was never fair, because much of the debt was for projects the T was forced to build as mitigation for the Big Dig, and because revenue from the penny of the state sales tax dedicated to the T didn’t grow as projected.

The state, which has deeper pockets and greater flexibility than the T, could help the T immensely by taking back responsibility for those payments. Either that, or the state must find substantial new revenues or redirect existing ones to the T, whose debt woes have forced it to skimp on even basic maintenance of its aging equipment. But neither Davey nor anyone else in the state’s transportation bureaucracy can lead the charge for such a major policy change. The push has to come from Governor Patrick himself.

His advocacy is needed because, outside the MBTA service area, support is at best tenuous for giving even more money to the transit agency. Patrick’s advocacy is also needed because House Speaker Robert DeLeo has signaled his opposition to tax increases in any form this year; unless DeLeo has a radical plan to redirect existing revenues, that stance means letting the T’s financial problems fester. Above all, Patrick’s advocacy is needed because putting the T on firmer footing means doing what successive governors and legislatures have refused to do: deal honestly with the consequences of the Big Dig.

When the project was conceived, no one on Beacon Hill had any incentive to keep costs down, because everyone assumed the federal government would pick up most of the tab. But when Congress capped the federal contribution, it ensured that any extra costs would inevitably fall, one way or another, on every individual and every business who pays taxes, fees, fares, or tolls in Massachusetts. Now the only question is how to allocate those costs equitably. In his first campaign for governor, Patrick assailed the “Big Dig culture’’ on Beacon Hill, and in 2009 he made a valiant effort to get on top of the transportation problem with his ill-fated gasoline tax plan. The Legislature refused to entertain the idea - and instead threw in some of the proceeds of a sales-tax hike - but those crippling debts didn’t just go away.

The sins of the Big Dig era will keep haunting the Massachusetts transportation system - in the form of crumbling roads, diminished mobility, and, yes, an MBTA constantly teetering on the brink of crisis - until the state stops kicking old debts down the road and starts paying them down more aggressively. It’s telling that Patrick is on his fourth transportation secretary; appointed managers can only do so much amid an impossible situation.

Of course the T will need to raise fares and trim some services in the short term. But what the broader problem really demands is a governor on a mission.

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