It was August 2009 and I was in Harvard Square having an early morning coffee when I answered my cell phone: “Deval Patrick here.” Really? I had never met Governor Patrick, but he wasted no time in telling me what he wanted.
Our governor explained to me that the finances of the state transportation system were a mess, difficult to understand, and he needed help in separating rumor from fact, myth from reality, and a cogent analysis. The most complex problem was the MBTA. After a few days of thinking about it, I agreed to chair a small group to study the MBTA problem, but there were a few conditions for the governor. He and I were not to meet before the study was completed; I could select the task force with no influence from him or the legislature and the report would be given to him at the same time as the public. He promptly said “Fine, I just want the truth.”
After almost four months of intense work, we delivered our MBTA Review to Patrick. It was a brutally candid report citing years of financial mismanagement, out of control deficits and neglected repairs of vehicles, equipment, bridges, tunnels etc.
Few have focused on the most damming part of the report: the genesis of this incredible downward spiral. The MBTA’s soaring debt and state of disrepair is the result of legislative action in 2000 — known as the Forward Funding Plan — which was not properly controlled or monitored. At the time of our report, this plan for the MBTA had been failing for almost a decade, with no long-term solutions in sight from the Legislature.
Here we are in 2013 and the Legislature is once again proposing a transportation plan that will only delay a financial armageddon, cause further equipment and infrastructure deterioration and place Massachusetts further behind states that are attracting businesses and quality jobs at a faster rate than Massachusetts. Worse, the legislative proposal extends the “kicking the can” approach to the entire transportation system, including our roadway and bridge infrastructure.
While with all the political mumbo jumbo it is difficult to follow the bouncing ball. Here are some facts:
The Governor’s Way Forward plan is unquestionably in the right direction. Its highlights include:
— A 10-year plan to eliminate MBTA deficits and the annual need for big fare increases and service cuts, and invest in the current system, including the purchases of new Red and Orange Line cars.;
— Improved service at the 15 Regional Transit Authorities;
— Spending billions to fix existing roads, rails and bridges in every city and town in the Commonwealth;
— Creating tens of thousands private sector jobs;
— Transparent accounting of the more than $ 1 billion MassDOT deficit.
Meanwhile, the legislative plan:
— Fails to permanently address MBTA deficits without higher fare increase;
— Offers no meaningful service improvements for regional transit riders;
— Eliminates key capital investment for our roads and bridges such as improvements at the I95/I93 interchanges in Canton and Woburn;
— Fails to purchase new and overdue Red/Orange/Green Line cars;
— Fails to offer South Coast commuter rail;
— Fails to address many serious safety issues.
The Commonwealth currently has $13.2 billion in authorized, but unfunded projects. The backlog of disrepair in roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical wiring, vehicle maintenance and replacement, etc. is staggering. The Legislature’s plan funds none of these capital plans to maintain the system we have, never mind targeted expansion projects.
As another example of short-sightedness, if we do not invest in new MBTA trains which are many years past the manufacturer’s use date, we will lose the chance for federal funding of the Green line extension, doubling the state cost for this legally mandated projected to $1.3 billion.
The governor asked for “the truth,”received it and acted upon it. The Legislature, once again, has ignored the real facts and has proposed another “kick the can” solution.
With the Legislature’s plan we are headed for longer and more frequent MBTA breakdowns, more commuter rail incidents, traffic delays, bridge and closings/limitations and more transportation problems than can be imagined.
The governor’s proposal for permanent income to fix our transportation problems is bold, but realistic and long-term. If we want to be competitive, attract and retain jobs, and be a competitive state to work and live, we need to stand up.
David D’Alessandro is former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services.