There are many disagreements about how the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority should be run, but everyone agrees on this point: To improve your commute, the T desperately needs to tackle a $7.3 billion backlog of repairs to get everything in good working order.
To eliminate that backlog, the T estimates that it must spend an average of $765 million a year for 25 years on projects to modernize equipment and make the T more reliable. But last week, the agency revealed it spent only $502 million, missing that figure by more than $260 million, during the 2016 fiscal year, which ended in June.
That matters because this kind of spending — which the T calls “reliability and modernization” funding — includes the kind of projects that are crucial to making sure your Red Line train doesn’t break down, or your commuter rail train isn’t packed to the brim with fellow riders.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledges the T wasn’t close to meeting that target this year, but said the agency is planning to aggressively ramp up that spending this fiscal year — up to about $800 million.
“It’s not something you do overnight,” said Pollack. “It’s not just about how many dollars are going out the door.”
Pollack is talking about the T’s capital budget, which finances long-term infrastructure projects that are often funded by federal grants or bonds. The capital budget includes both expansion projects — such as the Green Line extension into Somerville — and the repair and modernization projects meant to improve service.
Officials say they want to spend $6.5 billion on these kinds of projects over the next five years, which is more than double how much they spent from 2012 to 2016.
Governor Charlie Baker and the T’s fiscal control board have blasted the previous administration and the agency for not spending enough on its capital budget in the past.
But the numbers released last week show the administration is still struggling to get projects out the door. During the 2015 fiscal year, the T spent $768 million on both expansion projects and modernization and repair projects. But the following year — despite an intense focus on such capital projects — that number dropped to $743 million.
Part of the decline comes from the contentious Green Line extension, which was basically postponed for a year (and is effectively still awaiting permission to proceed from the federal government). But T officials say the problems are also organizational: The “design and construction” department traditionally responsible for such projects wasn’t organized well, the T took too long to grant awards to bidders, and capital programs haven’t been a key part of the agency’s strategy.
Officials say they’re trying to fix this. They’ve created a new “capital programs” office. And they have sped up their contracting process, so that it will take three months to award contracts, when it easily used to take double that.
So when can we see whether all this works?
That answer comes next summer. That’s when the next fiscal year ends — and if the T has actually spent $850 million to $950 million, the T’s capital program changes may have been fruitful. If all goes according to plan, that could translate to a few more trains running on time.