Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One Pike, Many Ways to Pay

The hopelessly atavistic Massachusetts Turnpike Authority can't stop moaning about the good news. Toll revenue is down because more folk find high fuel prices a catalyst for using mass transit. Fewer cars on the road mean less pollution and congestion, fewer traffic accidents, more money in driver's wallets, and movement to the future.

Annual Pitch Here: Next month, Tuesday, October 14th, is the one-day Moving Together conference. It's working sessions, lectures, exhibits and addresses with access to the key players in motor vehicle, bike, pedestrian and road transit. I've gone for years and still learn from the big shots, little shots and citizen groups alike. It's only $40 for the day.
The MTA is dead, but playing zombie. For background:
In Pennsylvania, there has long been a running joke about its pike. There, they love to say as we do about our subway that it is the oldest in the nation. (Drum roll...) It looks like it!

Here we are worse. The semi-autonomous authority has backed itself into a cave with no way out. Its mythic justification for existence is providing revenue for road maintenance and building. Instead, it loses increasing amounts, piles on debt, and in fact exists as a small industry whose only purpose is to employee toll takers and managers.

While numbers have gotten even grimmer since, the last full report on MTA finances was through 2006. It shows static revenue — up a percent or two one year and down another by the same amount. Operating expenses are soaring. Operating income is plunging. Asset value is dropping steadily and steeply.

Perhaps even more meaningful to drivers and taxpayers is where income goes. For example, in 2006, out of gross revenue of $305 million, just over $20 million went to repair and reconstruction (the alleged justification for the authority and tolls). In the same year, $23 million went to general and administrative costs; fringe benefits and retirement expenses brought that to over $50 million. Moreover, operations and public protection costs were $132 million.

There is no other way to look at the net. The MTA is a good-sized business that exists to employee toll workers, their managers and board members. As such, it deserves consideration as any corporation. However, from a financial analysis, it is not viable.

I suggest digging into pages six through nine and 13 and 14 to see where the money comes from, where it goes and how little benefits us.

Back in the real world, a quasi-independent Turnpike Task Force completed its examination two years ago next month. The two major recommendations were:
  • stop operating the Western Turnpike (west of the 128 toll plaza) as a tollroad by June 30, 2007
  • in collaboration with the incoming Governor and legislature, enact legislation to end all MHS tolls (east of the 128 toll plaza), except on the airport tunnels, by December 31, 2007
Those may happen, although both Gov. Deval Patrick and the General Court leadership are avoiding the implications and thus acting sluggishly. As usual, it comes back and down to taxes again.

Apparently the partially hidden taxes are okay. We can play at fiscal conservatism and call them something else. Drivers pay gas taxes. They pay tolls. They support the dreadfully wasteful MTA structure and operations that do not provide the money to keep up the roads and bridges.

Consider instead if we eliminated tolls except for those few tunnels. The task force figures its recommendations would save between $69 million and $105 million annually. They would also shift "the burden on on-going MTA deficits, I-90 maintenance, and (Central Artery) financing from toll payers to all tax payers."

We have been kept awake even in the day from the keening on this. Western drivers whine that they subsidize Eastern ones. Pike users in general carp about tolls and say they are paying for the free roads' maintenance too. Yet, these are the same folk who don't want any tax money going to mass transit, which they don't use.

We who live and work in the Boston area or other place where we bike or use the T instead of cars can be as self-interested about taxers to subsidize driving commuters.

We have had a long history of pseudo-free-market payment here. The theory is that those who use the roads should pay for them, and no one else. When the see how it grew into what it is, it's pretty clear that the Turnpike Task Force is right. Its lead reasoning is:
Over many decades, the MTA has evolved from a 1950-style independent authority with a simple, time bound mission into a rule-encrusted institution unable to reduce its own operating costs, integrate with the rest of state transportation infrastructure, or purge long-standing unfairness and adverse impact issues. There is no incremental fix that can effectively alleviate this condition other than the elimination of the founding concepts of toll collection and “independent” operations.
The fact is that the taxpayers are already paying more for the existing structure. We have long kidded ourselves that the tolls do anything other than pay the MTA salaries and benefits. The tiny road revenue does not begin to justify the authority.

We're far better off paying our bills like adults, in this case, maintaining the commonwealth's roads.

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