The MBTA’s dramatic problems have rightfully seized the attention of Greater Boston, including each of the communities I represent. While we weathered historic snowfalls, much of our transit system failed. I ride the T regularly and share the frustration and concern of so many of my constituents.
Governor Baker has formed a commission to study the causes of this systemic failure. I look forward to reading its report. Of course, there have been a lot of reports on the T through the years and we already know much of what ails the system.
Prior to 2000, the MBTA operated at an annual deficit. Then, at the end of each year, the MBTA turned to the Legislature to make up the balance between revenue and expenses. It was an approach to financing the system critiqued for inspiring little financial discipline.
So in 2000, the Legislature passed a transportation financing mechanism known as “forward funding,” which among other things dedicated 20% of the state sales tax to the MBTA. At the same time however, several billion dollars of public transit-related Big Dig debt was shifted to the MBTA’s books.
Based on projections, it seemed like a good plan to relieve the Commonwealth of debt and put the MBTA on an independent financial footing. But projections were wrong. The dedicated sales tax revenue stream brought in substantially less than expected while costs rose sharply. The result is an MBTA currently saddled with over $8 billion in debt (including interest) and a maintenance backlog originally valued at over $3 billion, but now estimated by state transportation officials to be as high as $6.7 billion. Recognizing that forward funding had not worked as intended, in 2009 the Legislature dedicated an additional $160 million annually to the MBTA and significantly reformed management and pension plans at the agency. Despite those additional monies and reforms, an annual spending gap persisted. By fiscal year 2014, it reached $265 million, all while the MBTA deferred more maintenance and interest payments absorbed more of its operating budget.
In light of these challenges, transportation finance became a central focus of the 2013/2014 legislative session, my first on Beacon Hill. In fact, in the last legislative term, it was clearly the biggest issue taken up by the Legislature and then-Governor Patrick.
Governor Patrick sought to raise $1.9 billion by increasing the income tax, lowering the sales tax, and closing or modifying 44 different credits, deductions and exemptions. The money raised was to be spent on two major investments: transportation and education.
The debate on Beacon Hill was intense. Believing that raising revenue to support these vital investments was the right thing to do, I pushed for adoption of Governor Patrick’s plan, or at least something like it. Unfortunately, while we did ultimately raise revenue by increasing the gas tax 3 cents a gallon and the cigarette tax, I do not believe it was enough.
The good news is that the revenue we did raise is now being invested in the system. It takes time to implement capital projects, so seeing the improvements will take patience. For instance, the MBTA has placed orders for new Red and Orange line cars, restored some weekend commuter rail service and will purchase 30 new commuter rail cars.
The snows of early 2015 exposed for all to see the deep problems that have been facing the MBTA for a long time now. There are many questions that need answering, among them: Are current financing mechanisms adequate to meet the demands of what the public wants and needs the system to do? Has the MBTA expanded too much at the expense of doing maintenance? Are there savings to be gained through additional reforms and reorganization? Should the state assume responsibility for some of the T’s debt? Hopefully, Governor Baker’s commission will shed light on these questions amidst renewed debate on Beacon Hill and throughout the Commonwealth.
Any increases in funding will be hard to come by. Some leaders on Beacon Hill have promised “no new taxes.” Given the financial challenges faced by the system, and that the Governor’s commission is yet to report its findings, a flat declaration on any policy option seems premature. With the health of our public transportation system now seriously in question, I think everything should be on the table, from reform to revenue. After all, estimates of lost economic activity due to the T shutting down completely were in the hundreds of millions of dollars per day.
We simply cannot build a 21st century economy on top of a 20th century infrastructure. Public transportation is vital to economic growth, quality-of-life and to protecting the environment by keeping cars off the road. It links workers to jobs and businesses to consumers. It will always be a key focus of mine and I will give my full efforts to supporting the best MBTA we can build and maintain.