When we talk about what makes Boston an economically dynamic and thriving city, the list is invariably topped by world-class universities and hospitals, biotech and financial services innovators, cultural institutions, and, to be sure, our sports teams.
But these days it’s getting tough to tout the T as an asset when its safety and staffing deficiencies have prompted the federal government to take on increased oversight of the system. There is talk of a takeover by the Federal Transit Administration.
Worse than being an embarrassment, our transit system is in danger of becoming an economic liability — especially the subway, after the sudden decision to shut down the Orange Line for a month to make emergency repairs.
“If you have a reputation for a bad or deteriorating transportation system, you get scratched off the list of corporations considering a move, and scratched off the list of places to start up a company,” David F. D’Alessandro, a former chairman of John Hancock Financial Services, said in an interview. “It doesn’t happen all at once. People stop using it, and then eventually people don’t want to come.”
(I worked for Hancock for several years while D’Alessandro was in charge.)
D’Alessandro knows something about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. In 2009, at the request of then-governor Deval Patrick, he oversaw a review of its financial condition, operations, and organization. The report issued by his team said management had botched a plan to become financially self-sustaining, and “a private sector firm faced with this mountain of red ink would likely fold or seek bankruptcy.”
The report was also prescient: “The MBTA continues to have significant problems related to the maintenance of its aging infrastructure. There is abundant evidence that the service and safety issues that plague the MBTA are considerably worse than is commonly understood — and are becoming critically worse.”
This was years before the disastrous winter of 2015. After Snowmageddon, Governor Charlie Baker strengthened the MBTA’s financial management and put a renewed focus on upgrading the system’s infrastructure.
Still, even on its best day, the T isn’t a first-rate rapid transit system. This year has been particularly bad, with a series of accidents, equipment failures, and the death of a passenger whose arm was caught in the door of a Red Line train as it left Broadway Station.
MBTA commuter rail, bus, and subway operations lack the capacity, reliability, and safety to adequately support the region. It’s a serious economic problem, at a time when the state is struggling with other longstanding issues — including the dearth of reasonably priced housing, relatively steep taxes, and high utility costs — that make it harder to compete with North Carolina, Texas, and other business hubs.
The economic benefits created by the T are easily overlooked, in part because they aren’t easy to quantify. But a 2018 study from A Better City, a business group focused on transportation, gave us a pretty good idea of what the MBTA system means to the region.
Its study estimated that the MBTA made possible $15 billion in savings from 2,300 miles of highway and 3,000 acres of parking spaces that otherwise might have had to be built. It identified $11.4 billion annual economic benefits from travel time and travel cost savings, and avoided crashes and emissions, far greater than the authority’s $2 billion operating budget at the time.
“We need to lean in now to create a 21st-century public transit system for our region,” said Rick Dimino, A Better City’s chief executive. “The return on investment for a dollar spent on the T is significant, and a well-run T is critical to ensuring a strong near- and long-term economic future.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for the MBTA’s deterioration, even though Baker gets tagged most frequently and vociferously. D’Alessandro believes Baker has done a good job, and said state lawmakers failed for decades to make sure the MBTA was appropriately funded.
“We are the ones that fund the T, but we don’t hold the Legislature accountable,” he said. “They fund what they believe they can afford instead of funding what is necessary. The accumulated effect of that underfunding is what we are experiencing.”
And that’s the heart of the matter: money.
There are many planning and operational changes the MBTA needs to make to get back on track. But without more investment — billions more than currently budgeted — this asset will continue to depreciate.
That would be a loss our economy couldn’t afford.