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opinion | Mark Sanborn

Don’t forget private industry when examining Mass. transit

Commuters waited at the North Quincy Station to board shuttle buses in February.
Commuters waited at the North Quincy Station to board shuttle buses in February. David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file/Globe Staff

When the worst of our winter weather shut down the MBTA and halted service on snow-stricken routes, private bus carriers were called in from across the state to carry thousands of passengers through a struggling system.

In response, a commission appointed by Governor Charlie Baker has been tasked with analyzing what ails the system and how to fix it. Baker has made it clear that he is not going to support just throwing more money at the system, but is looking for real long-term reforms.

While the amount of snowfall that stopped the T in its tracks was historic, the breakdown of the system was inevitable. A sobering study by the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission concluded that the MBTA was being crushed by debt and could not cover its operational costs from rider revenue. The other key finding was that in the face of staggering losses, the MBTA continued to expand its system through debt without properly maintaining its core operation.

That might seem like news to some, but the report was issued in March 2007.

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Yet, the warning sounded eight years ago against expansionism without operational funding has gone unheeded. Two years ago, the state announced plans for new rail projects costing more than $3 billion to expand the system to New Bedford, Springfield, Cape Cod, and the Berkshires, even though private bus carriers are running those routes and getting thousands of people where they need to be, at considerably less cost to taxpayers.

Although the Baker commission is focused on looking at the MBTA, it should also look at the overall transportation system in Massachusetts. Currently there are 18 private bus companies running hundreds of fixed-route commuter buses into Boston every day. And while those carriers have always been critical to making the whole system work, state policy has continued to promote an expansion of the public system to all corners of the state — always at the expense of these private companies, their employees, and the taxes, tolls, and fees they pay.

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Before commuter rail service was expanded to Worcester, for example, Peter Pan Bus had operated 10 daily commuter buses from Worcester to Boston, only two of which are running today. What is the rationale for government to compete against private carriers, effectively displacing them, when the service was already in place and working?

In 1980, before the MBTA’s expansion outside metro Boston, the Legislature established a modest state-supported bus purchase program to ensure that this “essential” private bus network would continue to offer its “economic and environmental advantages with respect to energy conservation and efficiency, air and noise pollution, public safety and cost per passenger mile of movement.”

But the dismantling of the private carrier system only accelerated. As a Department of Transportation study noted, the past 10 MBTA expansions left 116 communities without direct bus service after driving away private carriers, not to mention jobs, tax revenues and dependable transportation. To its credit, the MassDOT is making progress on reestablishing a new capital and operations program for intercity bus services as an important first step in recognizing the important role we play.

When plans were announced to expand the South Station train station, the bus terminal, and the needs of the private bus and motor coach industry were barely considered, despite the fact that the industry brings more than 4,000 buses to South Station every week; on Fridays alone we carry more than 17,000 people into the terminal. The motor coach industry in Massachusetts generates over 6,800 jobs and more than a half billion dollars in wages, but the priority in design and development of South Station was for the public system even as private carriers are charged docking fees not paid by public carriers.

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Our carriers were well appreciated for helping during the winter shutdown of the T, but the irony was not lost on us that we were, in effect, rescuing a system that has largely undervalued our role. Perhaps out of this crisis, a more rational transportation policy and system will emerge that properly values the role of the private industry in making our public transportation system work.

Mark Sanborn is the chair of the Massachusetts Bus Association.