The MBTA has a new watcher
The MBTA under Governor Charlie Baker has made many big promises to fix every wheezy corner of the old transit system. And now, an unusual coalition of business, environmental, and transit advocates has formed to ensure the agency keeps those promises.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with the Conservation Law Foundation and the MBTA Advisory Board — which represents cities and towns served by the T — to rate the agency’s follow-through on its strategic plan, the centerpiece of the Baker administration’s goal to eliminate the transit system’s massive backlog of repairs in 15 years.
“We’ve seen this over many years: Documents get issued saying, ‘this is the plan,’ in this case making the MBTA the system we deserve, and then they collect dust,” Boston chamber chief executive James Rooney said. “I didn’t agree with all that they put out there, but they came up with a plan . . . OK, that’s your plan. Execute it.”
The new partnership is an outgrowth of the chamber’s increased advocacy for big improvements to regional transportation. Amy Laura Cahn, a senior attorney at CLF, said public transit is a natural area for advocates and business leaders to pool their energy.
“I think we all have more common interests than not, in wanting a metro area that works, and a broader region that works,” she said.
The T’s strategic plan is expected to be updated regularly to account for new projects and initiatives. Rooney noted that new information could affect the groups’ annual report.
For example, the T’s repair backlog — projected a few years back at $7.3 billion — could actually be higher because of inflation and other changes to the estimate; the T’s board is expected to hear an update on systemwide repair costs at a meeting in late November. If the cost estimate is indeed higher, fixing the system could require even greater boosts in spending than the T is planning, Rooney said.
Some of the MBTA’s strategic plan is directly measurable, like 15-year repair goals or installing a new fare system in the coming years. Other objectives are more squishy and may be tougher to grade, such as making the bus system much better. While the T has several initiatives underway to improve bus service, some more ambitious proposals — like redesigning the entire network — are still in the early stages.
The coalition plans to publish its annual report in the first quarter of each year, ahead of the T’s annual budgeting process. That will give the T an opportunity to adjust its budget to address shortcomings — though Rooney acknowledged the agency is not bound to follow the recommendations of the three outside groups.
But T officials are at least talking nice. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the state will support the annual assessment. And in a statement, MBTA board chairman Joseph Aiello said outside feedback “is imperative to any strategic plan, and particularly for the MBTA as we continue to instill consumer confidence.”