Our epic month of snowstorms has exposed Boston’s weakest link — the MBTA. Crisis planning, risk management, and communication were lacking; suspended, delayed, and reduced services infuriated commuters; loss of productivity and commerce has been staggering. But it can be silver-lining time for the T. As now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”
The problems at the MBTA are widely known and not new, but never have been a top priority of either Democratic or Republican administrations. Over the decades, blue-ribbon committees have offered sound corrective actions that have been ignored. Major structural flaws include underfunding of existing infrastructure, old cars, outdated equipment, maintenance backlogs, runaway costs, chronic multimillion dollar deficits, bloated payrolls, an underfunded pension plan, massive debt that drains 25 percent of annual revenue, a poor reliability record, a customer-comes-second mentality, and a history of fare increases that greatly exceed inflation. The T has failed to earn taxpayer trust, stretching back to the early 1980s when Chairman Barry Locke siphoned off big sums in a kickback scheme.
The monetary cost and psychological impact on ridership caused by current chaos is immense with potentially long-lasting consequences. Already the price of not having (or being able to count on) a fully functioning transportation system as measured in lost worker productivity, store closings, and lost commerce in Boston is more than $1 billion a week. This painfully demonstrates that when a public good such as the T fails to fulfill its obligation there are clear and immediate economic costs. Fixing the T is an economic must-do.
The majority of funding to support the MBTA comes from a 1 percent carve-out of the Commonwealth’s 6.25 percent sales tax revenue (about 40 percent of expenses), followed by ridership fares (31 percent of expenses), then from rents and fees associated with parking lots and other properties owned. Yet the lack of focus on fare payment enforcement during rush hours, has allowed “fare cheating” to go unabated, draining millions annually. Boston’s business community should demand that more resources be dedicated to stabilizing, maintaining, and upgrading this extremely aging system.
Governor Baker’s announcement last Friday to form a panel of experts to review the MBTA will only be successful if out of it comes meaningful and actionable recommendations that when implemented can fix the panoply of structural problems. Here are a few priority items for his shortlist:
■ Hire a new general manager who can help — once and for all — to turn an embedded civil-service culture into a customer-focused culture with the single business goal of moving people safely, reliability and efficiently in and out of Boston.
■ Properly fund the MBTA by increasing the existing carve-out from 1 percent to 1.25 percent of the state’s sales tax. This would more than close the funding gap by raising an additional $200 million annually.
■ Recapitalize the $5.5 billion of MBTA debt, and rebalance the existing debt to revenue structure. Doing so would free up more funds for meeting maintenance and existing infrastructure needs.
■ Maximize fare revenue by installing proper controls eliminating the “rush-hour” payment honor system, reducing the number of commuters that ride for free. Closing this “cheater gap” could increase fare revenue by over $20 million annually.
■ Once a comprehensive panel review has been completed and priority areas targeted, use increased funding to upgrade existing infrastructure, expand capacity, add new cars and improve service dependability.
■ Make stabilizing the existing system the top priority and put all expansion projects such as the $2.2 billion South Coast rail proposal on hold until the patient receives a clean bill of health. To divert funds to new projects, pulling money away from upkeep, would be financially irresponsible.
■ Establish a dedicated risk-management control center to plan and implement better crisis- and risk-management techniques to anticipate weather and other outage related threats as well as improve the communication system including mobile apps to alert commuters to delayed, reduced and canceled service.
■ Better coordination between city and MBTA snow removal operations would ensure that each is not working at cross purposes. One of the primary reasons the Green Line B Branch west of Kenmore was shut down post storms was not because of unreliable cars but because of city plow trucks dumping large amount of snow on the tracks, and once frozen, this snow became immovable.
■ Finally, don’t just listen to blue ribbon panel recommendations from top transportation public policy, urban planning and risk management experts. Act on recommendations.
Mark T. Williams teaches risk management at Boston University’s School of Management.