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MBTA only one part of a fragile transportation network

The T is not the only part of the transportation network that needs to be updated. Earlier this month, cars were gridlocked on Beacon Street.
The T is not the only part of the transportation network that needs to be updated. Earlier this month, cars were gridlocked on Beacon Street.AP/file

The MBTA's performance in the record snow and cold temperatures gives us a glimpse of a possible future — one in which our transportation system completely fails us. When the T shuts down, businesses and workers lose millions of dollars. The torturous driving commutes of the past few weeks will be the norm if T riders decide they can't rely on transit and start driving to work. For those who have no option but the T, the past few weeks have been a nightmare.

The winter exposed the fragility of the MBTA to hundreds of thousands of commuters, but our entire transportation network is unreliable and outdated. We have miles of roads in rough shape and hundreds of bridges in need of attention. This was true before the snowfall and will be true when the snow melts.

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While we can't control the weather — and these more intense and frequent storms may become the norm, due to climate change — we can act to rebuild our transportation system.

As the new commission appointed by Governor Baker gets to work on diagnosing the situation and producing solutions, here is a suggested plan to get us on track:

First, continue reforms to stretch transportation dollars further. The Legislature passed two big reform initiatives in the last five years, eliminating the MBTA's "23 and out" retirement benefits and shifting MBTA employees to less expensive health insurance.

More can be done. At the top of the list is accelerating improvements to the MBTA's system for maintaining its rails and rail vehicles, power systems, and buses.

A solid asset management plan will prioritize fixes and prevent more disruption. The new system is supposed to be online by June.

While reforms are necessary, they alone cannot fix the MBTA. The agency is so burdened by debt and decades of backlogged repairs, there is no hope of fixing the T without additional revenues. The same holds true for transportation infrastructure in every corner of our commonwealth.

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We simply must raise additional funds to fix the MBTA and our bridges, roads, sidewalks, and regional bus systems. Here's how we could do it:

1. Shift a portion of the MBTA's debt to the state. The Commonwealth should pick up payment for the Big Dig-related debt that's saddling the MBTA. This would free up $130 million for the most pressing repairs.

2. Raise the gas tax by 10 cents to generate $260 million for statewide needs. Dedicate half of it to accelerate MBTA repairs, and half to repair local road damage and to replace old regional transit buses.

3. Start testing new and innovative ways to replace the gas tax, since it's not a sustainable funding source as cars become more fuel-efficient. Options include expanding the number of roads that are tolled electronically and piloting the use of a fee paid for each mile driven.

4. Let regions determine their own transportation future. Many states allow regions to tax themselves and dedicate the funds locally. Let's give that opportunity to our cities and towns so they can advance regional transportation projects.

Political leaders have said they won't consider raising taxes. But we're already paying in lost wages, sales, and family time. Transportation that fails us, costs us. If we don't upgrade our outdated transportation network, we will continue to pay dearly in the future. Our declining transportation system will strangle economic growth.

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To ensure Massachusetts stays competitive, we need our transportation system to grow with the economy. MBTA ridership is projected to keep growing, so adding capacity is essential if we are to be competitive with cities like New York and Dallas and countries like China, that are expanding or building new systems.

In 2013, the Legislature took an important first step in increasing funding for transportation. We call on the Legislature to continue their progress and fix the problem once and for all. And we ask Governor Baker to start the conversation by submitting, in his first budget, a responsible plan to both build on recent reforms and raise new funds for transportation.

Kristina Egan is director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy coalition.

Related:

Editorial: Baker's chance for tomorrow's transportation

Dante Ramos: Jack up the federal gas tax now

Mike Ross: Baker's leadership needed for transportation

John E. Sununu: The chase is on over federal transportation bill