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Subsidizing the MBTA may be the new normal

An Orange Line train rolled into the Assembly Square stop on its first day in service in September 2014.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File/Globe staff

No matter how you feel about Steve Wynn and his Everett gambling palace, he's agreed to do what no other developer has: subsidize T service.

Others have sprung for capital improvements, but Wynn's plan would keep the trains running on time. That's something most of us can get behind. In fact, if Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack plays her cards right, this could be the new normal of doing business in Massachusetts.

With the MBTA in financial straits and in need of major upgrades, Pollack plans to lean on the private sector to foot more transit bills.

"This is not any criticism of the behavior of the private sector in the past," Pollack said. "They are asked to fix intersections, not to fix MBTA service."


This is what typically happens: Developers study how many cars their projects will generate and then propose ways to reduce congestion, such as building a new lane, widening a street, or paying for a traffic signal. Public transit becomes an afterthought, seen as the government's responsibility. And if you think about it — and Pollack has — the system practically incentivizes developers to assume more transit riders, because that means fewer road improvements.

In the case of Wynn, he was already promising significant road improvements, but the state was also encouraging him to have his employees and customers use the Orange Line. When officials ran the numbers, they realized the Orange Line would be heavily used during off peak hours — nights and weekends — and the MBTA would need to staff up to maintain service levels.

Instead of eating the cost, the state asked Wynn to pay for additional operations, to the tune of $7.4 million over 15 years. One of the first questions the Wynn team asked was whether anyone else had done this before.


The answer was no. But as it was explained to the casino developer, that was then, and this is now.

"We had the impression that this was a new way of thinking of how to build a better transportation system," said Michael Weaver, a senior executive at Wynn Resorts. "And it didn't seem unrealistic, because it was so well documented."

Now talk to Rick Dimino, who runs the business-funded transportation advocacy group A Better City, and he thinks Wynn's deal is so complicated, it's hard to offer it up as a model. Besides, the private sector already opens its wallet, from building new stations (Boston Landing, Assembly) to employers buying T passes for their workers. That amounts to about $166 million, or about 28 percent of the MBTA's total fare revenue.

"You just have to be careful about how much you are asking business to do," Dimino said.

But Pollack is onto something here. Just take a look at the Seaport District. One of the top complaints is traffic. To get more employees out of their cars, companies are running about 74 private shuttles across 20 routes to supplement the Silver Line, the main bus network on the South Boston Waterfront, and to plug service gaps, such as to North Station.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which is proposing to consolidate the shuttles, estimates employers are spend $5.5 million to $6 million a year in total to fund this private fleet.

Which raises the question: Couldn't some of this money be spent on the Silver Line instead?


The private sector doesn't have to look far for a road map on how this could be done. Over the past decade, the Massachusetts Port Authority has spent about $15 million in capital investment to buy and modernize eight Silver Line coaches. The authority, which runs Logan International Airport, coughs up an additional $3 million annually to help pay for the line's operations.

Massport chief Tom Glynn said the authority keeps supporting the bus service because a functioning Silver Line benefits airport passengers by providing a direct connection to the city, just like the Blue Line.

Glynn thinks businesses in the Seaport District would pony up, but it's on the MBTA to come up with a system. He suggests looking at what the City of Boston did a few years ago when it devised a new way for nonprofits that don't pay property taxes to make payments to the city.

"You have to have a formula that is fair," Glynn said.

Similarly, waterfront developers seeking state permits must pay into a water transportation fund that the Boston Harbor Association pushed for. For example, Joe Fallon, the developer of Fan Pier, is helping to subsidize the operation of the "Cultural Connector" boat shuttle, spending about $100,000 a year.

But businesses have to know they will be getting their money's worth, and the MBTA of the moment doesn't exactly instill confidence. That's not lost on the transportation secretary.

"The issue of confidence in the MBTA is a legitimate one," Pollack said.


That's what she's working on, and if it's any consolation, the public-private partnerships to build stations at Somerville's Assembly Row and Allston's Boston Landing prove the MBTA has worked well with others so far.

But for the private sector, there's really not much choice here. Funding the T in ways they haven't before is a price they have to pay if they want a world-class transportation system.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.