What is happening to our “City on a Hill”?
We read that The Ride service provided by the MBTA exceeds minimum federal standards, and actually provides mobility to disabled people throughout the region. But this is cited as a reason to cut back service, rather than something to be proud of. In dozens of public hearings, frightened people protest proposed service cuts and MBTA fare hikes that would force them to pay dramatically more for substantially less service. In addition, the fare hikes and service cuts would force people out of public transportation and into more auto use, exacerbating congestion and air pollution; a state that proudly enacted its own Global Warming Solutions Act and Healthy Transportation Compact could violate its own Clean Air Act compliance plan. Board action to increase fares and postpone the worst part of the crisis guarantees a revisiting of this ugly scene within a year, unless a new plan emerges. Fortunately, there is a solution that Governor Patrick should pursue.
The direct cause of the T’s problems is the MBTA “Forward Funding” statute of 2000. For nearly 40 years prior, the state encouraged transit expansion and use by absorbing 90 percent of the capital cost of transportation expansion, and the growing cost of services such as The Ride and commuter rail, in order to provide environmentally friendly public transportation. Forward Funding dumped billions of dollars of state debt on to the MBTA, and assumed without reason that growing costs of service expansion into lower-density suburbs could be supported on a tax base that is static. Twelve years later, this dramatic change of state policy has eroded the financial stability of the MBTA, and led directly to the current crisis.
The single step that would solve the crisis would be for the state to take back the responsibility for 90 percent of MBTA debt. The problem is that the state has also been accumulating billions of dollars in debt for road and bridge investments and for approximately $7 billion in non-federal Big Dig debt. Yet for the past 20 years the state gas tax has not been increased to reflect either inflation or improved auto fuel economy. Governor Romney ducked the growing problem by establishing a study commission, which reported at the end of his term a $30 billion gap in transportation funding.
Two years later, Patrick took a swing at the mess by proposing a 19-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, but failed to achieve legislative support. Instead, he got “reform,” which combined three financially strapped agencies — MassPike, Mass Highway, and MBTA — under one board with an inadequate increase in funding.
It is always very hard, but sometimes achievable, to get legislative support for a tax increase to improve future transportation with new investment. But when the proposal is to raise a tax to pay old bills primarily for Boston projects completed a decade ago, in the middle of a difficult economic period, legislators, especially from outside of the Boston metropolitan area, are understandably reluctant. Still, a political stalemate doesn’t make the problems go away.
But there is a way that Patrick can begin to address the financial crisis.
The Massachusetts Port Authority is the biggest single beneficiary of the Big Dig. Approximately half of the $15 billion Big Dig cost paid for the Seaport access road and Ted Williams Tunnel (primarily to access Massport facilities). The Logan parking garages are the largest non-airfield revenue streams for Massport, and they function only because of the access provided by MassDOT. Massport, now overseen by appointees of Patrick, has a moral obligation, and a practical responsibility, to help solve the MassDOT/MBTA crisis. Massport can contract with the Board of the unified MassDOT/MBTA to pay over $100 million annually in debt service as an access fee for its garages. This would allow a significant easing of the MBTA crisis, and demonstrate that a Boston-area institution is doing its part to deal with the problem.
Eventually, both state reacceptance of responsibility for legacy debt and more state funding will be required for adequate statewide transportation, but the Legislature is unlikely to move on adequately increased state funding before regional equity is addressed. Massport’s enabling act anticipated the need for Boston-area infrastructure to be financed from Boston-based, rather than statewide, resources. Patrick can make a significant first step to resolving this crisis by reminding Massport of its obligation to support the highway and transit infrastructure their facilities rely on, and facilitate a Massport access payment of at least $100 million per year to MassDOT.
Fred Salvucci, former state transportation secretary, is a lecturer at MIT.