Wednesday morning, Governor Charlie Baker endorsed a new proposal to fix the MBTA. The plan was put together by a special panel Baker organized to look into the T’s winter woes, and it essentially has three parts. One, make the MBTA cover its day-to-day costs. Two, focus any new state funding on maintenance and infrastructure. And three, improve management practices throughout the agency — beginning with asking the full MBTA board to resign.
All told, the plan envisions a major change in the MBTA, transforming it from a public agency with a bureaucratic structure and a broad social mission to something with the cost-consciousness and consumer-friendly ethos of a “customer-oriented business.”
On his own, however, the governor lacks the authority to implement many of these changes. To move the plan forward, he needs to build support within the Legislature.
1. Make the MBTA more responsible for everyday costs
The MBTA doesn’t take in enough money — through fares or its dedicated sliver of the state sales tax — to fully cover its day-to-day needs.
In the governor’s report, this mismatch is treated as a sign that the agency is “in severe financial distress and would be insolvent without significant and continually increasing funding from the Commonwealth each year.”
In some ways, this is a weird way to look at things. Nobody says that the police department is insolvent because speeding tickets don’t cover the cost of salaries, or that the library is insolvent because late fees don’t cover the cost of book purchases. We recognize that these things are public goods and we subsidize them as needed.
The governor’s plan treats the MBTA rather differently, recommending that the agency use a variety of approaches — including higher fares — to cover its own daily costs.
At the same time, the governor’s report acknowledges that reaching this goal will require transitional help, and so it recommends that the state accept responsibility for some of the agency’s inherited debts.
2. Devote new state funding to infrastructure
While the governor wants to limit state funding for the MBTA’s everyday expenses, his plan does envision some new, long-term investments in the system’s broader infrastucture needs.
This includes money to cover a massive backlog of maintenance projects, expected to cost over $6.7 billion, or 10 times what the agency spent on all its capital projects last year.
It’s impossible to say how big the state’s future infrastructure investments might be, because the report doesn’t say and the governor doesn’t know. He has called for a new assessment of the system’s long-term needs, which would then become the basis for a detailed spending plan.
3. Improve management practices
Fixing the culture of the MBTA is as central to the governor’s proposal as fixing its finances. Among other things, his team uncovered a shocking amount of absenteeism, with the average employee taking off 57 working days each year. They also found a lack of consistent leadership, limitations due to collective bargaining, and weak links between the agency and the governor’s office (and the Legislature).
At the heart of the governor’s proposal to address these systemic organizational problems is a temporary “Fiscal and Management Control Board” that would replace the MBTA board and oversee the implementation of the governor’s new, more business-like vision. That includes a greater attention to measuring the performance of employees, a more “customer-oriented” focus for the agency, and a reorganization of the MBTA and its departments.
After three to five years, when the work of the Fiscal and Management Control Board is complete, control of the agency would pass back to an MBTA board.
Will these changes actually get made?
Some of these things the governor can do on his own. He can direct the MBTA to more clearly separate its everyday funding from its infrastructure spending. He can recommend a moratorium on new projects, and he can ask the agency to update its spending plans.
Many other issues, however, are beyond his control. Only the Legislature can create a Fiscal and Management Control Board, and raising T fares would also require new legislation.
It’s possible that, months from now, the governor’s plan will join the large stack of past, unheeded reports on how to improve the MBTA. But if the cold days continue, and the memory of winter failures refuses to fade, the urgency of fixing the MBTA may give this report some additional force.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz