T troubles from the can kicked down the road by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.



In Mumbai, train service was once so slow passengers rioted and burned train stations.  In Bangkok, a one-way commute can take four hours.  Manila’s public transport relies on Jeepneys, modeled on WW II jeeps and hazardous to passenger comfort and safety.  But the performance of the MBTA of late shows Greater Boston has the best Third World transit system that money can buy. In fact, yesterday it didn’t run at all. Today it has returned to limping.

Governor Charlie Baker may be losing his patience with T General Manager Beverly Scott. She has been at the post for just a couple of years, while T problems are decades old. I remember covering its financial troubles back when now retired, 30-year Congressman Barney Frank was a young state rep arguing for a budgetary solution.

As former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro, author of a largely ignored 2009 review of the T, reminded listeners yesterday on WGBH radio, it is the legislature that has been kicking the can down the road.  We are now witnessing the outcome of documented long-term neglect, where craven solons lack the backbone to raise the taxes and fees necessary to achieve a functional public transit system.  Yesterday, asked whether Beverly Scott has to be fired, D’Allesandro said, “You could have Warren Buffett in that job, and it wouldn’t make a difference.”

Now it will take  an estimated $6 billion to catch up on deferred maintenance, including the myriad electrical problems, switching snafus, broken heating systems and fires we’ve seen of late. Regrettably (now there’s an understatement), the T’s debt service is almost as large as the revenues it brings in from fares. This is clearly unsustainable. Other potential revenue sources are suggested, including raising the gas tax, installing electronic tolls on major highways, and further reforming the overly generous T pension system. After voters rejected a simple gas tax escalator law, will our reps have the courage to go back to the drawing board?

Money isn’t the only issue.  Today’s Boston Herald  notes that a million federal dollars came to the T several years ago to create a maintenance data base, but that is still not yet operational.  Hello?  Where was the Patrick administration’s needed sense of urgency?

Some fault the so-called Pacheco law that bars private companies from competing for most public contracts. I am no fan of the Pacheco law because I think it fails to hold down costs. But the T’s computer rail service was contracted out to the French Keolis company. And, according to a study by the Pioneer Institute, our commuter rail service is worse than ever, among the worst in the country for on-time performance.

Will Scott’s head have to roll?  She’s a feisty lady, and projects the knowledge and toughness it will take to drag the T out of the mess it is in.  I don’t know enough about her management skills to join the call for a firing.  But any replacement would face the very same monumental problems.   Charlie Baker and she will be sitting down tomorrow (for the first time!) to see if they can work together to figure out a solution.

Are T fixes in the proposed Olympic-related budget?  Repairs are not Olympic priorities. Surely the T’s immediate priorities must not get caught up in Boston2024!  As No Boston Olympics reminds us,  Olympics advocates, to keep costs down, say the bid “doesn’t need significant transit investment.”

Commutergeddon is not merely an intolerable inconvenience; it’s a drag on the whole economy. We need action now.  Voters should let their legislators know that they’re expected to stop kicking that can once and for all. If voters aren’t willing to do so, they should just stop complaining about the miserable service.