Neglecting the MBTA by committee

Commuters headed to shuttle buses at the JFK/UMass station in February.
Getty Images/file
Commuters headed to shuttle buses at the JFK/UMass station in February.

When the MBTA buckled under record snow in February, the problem wasn’t just the agency’s aged equipment or heavy debt load. Still more crippling were the political currents swirling around the T. Yes, there are many ways — such as debt relief, greater flexibility on fares, and far-reaching management changes — to foster resiliency at the T while bringing costs and revenues in line. But for each option, there’s an influential group eager to block it. When every chef in the kitchen gets to rule some ingredients out of any reform plan, nobody gets the blame when the recipe falls flat. And it’s nobody’s job to fix it.

After first distancing himself from the MBTA’s performance, Governor Charlie Baker has moved to take ownership. An expert panel that he appointed is calling for a new financial control board, operational reforms, and, eventually, much-needed capital funding.

On Beacon Hill, transportation reforms start big and come out small. But when Baker files legislation on the T, lawmakers should give him the powers he asks for. The T needs investment, but it also needs clear lines of authority — and customers should have someone to hold accountable for the results.

Here are some of the competing interests:


Transit advocates. Groups representing riders, environmentalists, smart-growth planners, and downtown real estate interests see underinvestment as the main source of MBTA’s troubles. Often open to cost-saving reforms, but not fixated on them. Averse to fare hikes. Committed to expanding service as region grows. “If anything,” says Marc Draisen, head of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, “the market has met up with the recommendations of transit analysts from 10 or 15 years ago.” But some advocates, critics argue, have never seen a proposed expansion they didn’t like.

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Budget hawks. Local business-funded watchdogs, such as Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Pioneer Institute, have long memories of serial refinancings, pension underfunding, and other fiscal gimmicks at the T. Quick to point out areas where the T’s costs exceed those of other US transit agencies. Deeply wary of public employee unions’ influence. Potential blind spot: Importance of transit to new economy may not be obvious to battle-scarred budget warriors.

MBTA unions. The Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589 issued a mild response to the report from Baker’s panel. Historically, though, the T’s largest union has opposed changes to members’ pay, benefits, and work rules — and resisted efforts to open the records of the T retirement fund to public scrutiny.

Boston-area legislators. Elected lawmakers from Boston, Cambridge, and environs are reliable advocates for transit funding, but the politics get awkward when the interests of transit riders and T employees diverge. Lawmakers from the region’s urban core have lots of Local 589 members in their districts, too.

Legislators elsewhere. Well outside Interstate 495, MBTA woes look less like an urgent threat to the statewide economy and more like Boston’s problem to fix. “When the people in the Berkshires turn on the 6 o’clock news, it’s coming out of Albany,” says Steve Silveira, a former T official who chaired the state’s Transportation Finance Commission.


Cities and towns. A recent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report noted that assessments from user communities will make up just 8 percent of the T’s operating revenues in 2015; the average for the nation’s 10 largest transit systems is nearly 25 percent. But notice that lawmakers here aren’t squeezing cities and towns for more. Even though property values have risen sharply in transit-connected areas, local governments argue that Proposition 2½ limits their ability to turn this increase into new tax revenues.

Anti-tax activists. A 2014 ballot question that repealed a modest automatic increase in the gas tax upset a delicate legislative compromise — and gave the state less room to maneuver on the T’s finances now.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.