Charlie Baker’s MBTA board needs to get to work
NOW THAT Governor Baker is finally getting the power he sought from the Legislature to create a fiscal control board for the MBTA, he needs to pick members quickly and put them to work. Winter, after all, is less than six months away. The new board won’t be able to fix all that ails the agency by then, but it must at least be able to demonstrate progress.
The control board was the most important part of the reform package Baker introduced after last winter’s epic breakdowns. Despite some worries on Beacon Hill that it would overlap too much with the MassDOT board, the House and Senate agreed to a deal this week to form a panel focused on putting the T’s financial house in order. The legislation included other reforms as well, including a temporary lifting of the law that makes it difficult to outsource MBTA services.
Some suggestions for the board:
■ Set up careful procedures for using the T’s new outsourcing ability. The three-year suspension of the antiprivatization law was one of the most contentious aspects of the reform legislation, and the T will be under a microscope when — and if — it outsources service. It’s up to the T, and the reform board, to prove that privatization can save taxpayer money without enriching political cronies or weakening service.
■ Ensure that the T has a comprehensive list of its capital needs, so that the agency can plan and prioritize its long-term capital spending. The T needs more than just new trains: The agency needs new electrical systems, switching equipment, and heaters to keep tracks clear of snow. The agency estimated its needs at $6.7 billion , but acknowledged the list was incomplete.
■ Recommend a strategy for financing those investments. Voters last year rejected automatic indexing of the state gas tax, which would have increased transportation funding, and Baker clearly doesn’t want to raise taxes. The fiscal control board should present a thorough look at the agency’s borrowing options and determine whether it’s realistic to save enough through efficiencies to service new debt.
Continue exploring practices in other cities with large transit agencies. With the caveat that no two cities are the same, the board should compare the T’s performance, especially in areas like bus maintenance, where the T’s costs seem especially out of line with other
■ Along with Baker, produce a road map for the next few years that gives passengers a clear understanding of when, where, and why the T is spending money. Investments in trains and stations, of course, will be visible. But the other kinds of spending that the T will need to make have to be communicated to riders as well.
With any luck, next winter won’t cripple the T the same way the last one did. But Baker must realize he won’t get as much benefit of the doubt if service falters again. He’s got a lot riding on the control board. For his political sake — not to mention the sanity of riders — the board needs to be able to show it’s on track by the time the first snowflakes fall.