THE TRANSPORTATION QUAGMIRE

shuttles

^ future T service : biotech companies split the cost of shuttling employees from one facility to another

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It was suggested, in a recent Shirley Leung column in the Boston Globe, that businesses may have to pony up a big part of what the MBTA fix will cost. Keep that suggestion in mind as I outline to you the quagmire of our transportation systems.

Fixing the T may just be the simpler part of the clean-up. The legislature enacted every crucial systemic reform. Innovation is here. Management is trying stuff out — using Keolis’s non-performance fines to hire additional fare-collecting commuter rail staff is one such. The MBTA employees’ pension trust is being reconfigured to align with the pension system that oversees other state employees’ retirement. Tracks, signals, and switches are well on the way to optimal condition. Low-usage bus runs are being outsourced to low-cost operators. Bus and transit departures are being closely monitored for on-time performance. Missed runs, too.

Even the present Green Line extension through Somerville to West Medford poses no conflict. The sole issue is cost overruns. Procurement and design issues have arisen, as they must when transit costs fall under pressure. Still, the extension cannot be set aside; Somerville and Medford have committed their municipal planning to it.The process issues raised will have to be addressed the next time an expansion of T service arises..

Paying for all of this still includes comprehensive system reform. Is it really possible, as this photograph suggests, that bus supervisors track buses on paper ? in 2015 ? The T must update — big time –what Juliette Kayyem in last year’s Governor race called “data management.” Money ? yes, it will require money. Properly accounted for money.

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^ garage supervisor monitors T buses … by paper ?? Really ? (photo via Jed Hresko)

What about roads and bridges ? Here we face an additional difficulty : some roads and bridges are municipal responsibilities, others the State’s. Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns. That means there are 352 government entities overseeing the upkeep of highway transportation. Or maybe more : because the State’;s highway brief includes the very separate Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, with its own funding system and day to day management.

Which brings me to the bottom line subject of this editorial : how do we pay for the transportation systems that we need ?

If only transportation funding were simple, one size fits all. It isn’t :

  1. tolls pay for the Turnpike and for Boston’s bridges and tunnels.
  2. fares pay part of the cost of operating the T and commuter rail
  3. highway bonds fund most of the State’s highway responsibilities.
  4. Federal funds pay a significant part of T expansion
  5. the State’s Local Aid fund, by which money from the Lottery goes to cities and towns, pays for highways and bridges that fall under municipal responsibility
  6. local aid also pays for much snow removal work and tidal flooding clean-ups. Beyond that, Federal disaster funds sometimes help.
  7. taxpayer dollars, much of it via the State’s gas tax, pay for some highway maintenance and T operations.

Seven payment streams, and it’s still not enough. Nor does it look as though there’s much logic to proposed alleviations. A coalition of progressive-politics advocacy groups seek to place on the November 2016 ballot a two-tier tax — which would require a Constitutional Amendment — earmarking to transportation (and education) the additional tax money they hope to raise. Even assuming this proposal becomes adopted, there is no certainty that the additional money will in fact pay for transportation costs. Tax revenues coming into the State’s coffers aren’t differentiated, and I do not see any feasible method for marking which tax dollars arise from the two tier tax and which not.

Thus the solution proposed by Shirley Leung.

As Leung points out, businesses already pay for some transportation means. Many businesses operate shuttles to take workers from one facility to another. Massport operates shuttles to and from Logan Airport. And then there’s Steve Wynn, who, says Leung has offered to pay for transporting customers to and from his casino.

I think we should run with this idea. Why shouldn’t businesses pay into the T’s operations costs ? Without an optimum T operation, businesses suffer, as workers take longer to get to work and as customers take longer as well. And if business payments lead to discussing funding entire transit routes, or creating and funding news ones, why not ? We already have Uber and Lyft transforming the taxi concept. Why not businesses transforming at least part of the transit operation ?

That prospect, of course, leads to confrontation with the Carmens’ Union and the Pacheco Law.  But there’s no way around the huge transportation cost quagmire. We must have a workable, diverse transportation system, and it costs money to operate. Somebody has to pay for it, and he who pays should have the authority to decide.

In any case, business paying for ad hoc transportation service seems to me a very smart idea.

My guess is that it will take at l,east 20 years to accomplish reconfiguration of the State’s transportation operations in such fashion that nobody loses his or her job even as methods of transport and payment for them change drastically. Am I optimistic that we can actually do this ? Yes I am. Governor Baker, Speaker DeLeo, and even Senate President Rosenberg seem ready to not be deterred. Neither man will hold power for anything like 20 years, but each will hold it long enough to render clkean-up of the quagmire unstoppable.

I hope.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Spherer

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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