Monday, July 13, 2009

MBTA Starved For Good Sense

Sure, let's do it again. There is a cure for the T's money problems. It is a huge and painful cure, but it's been plain to all for many years.

I've called for it repeatedly. Yet, General Manager Dan Grabauskas doesn't have the smarts or courage or both to demand it. The legislature pretends to know nothing about it and who knows why our Gov. Deval Patrick won't be straight about it.

For those on Beacon Hill who see the obvious, it appears they live in a fantasy. They want the problem to fix itself. The only way that can happen would be a sudden and thorough reversal of our economic woes of the past decade. If our economy were to blossom to its best self and remain growing, only then would the sales tax revenue fulfill its part of the bargain the legislature struck.

Fat chance.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the lawmakers made what is absolutely one of the worst decisions ever. As complicated and distasteful as it would be to deal it, the General Court must.

The idea of public transit that pays its own way was at the heart of the original legislation. When the sort-sighted legislature set up the deal dependent on sale-tax revenue, it may have had the best of intentions. Yet, like so much in the past decade, the realities have changed and the rules must change to reflect that.

We can remind both Gov. Patrick and both houses that we have multiple crises here. We have aims and mandates that include:
  • Reducing petroleum use
  • Fewer polluting vehicles onour streets
  • Less traffic noise and congestion
  • Frequent, clean, safe and efficient mass transit
  • T service from where people live to where they work
  • Mass transit that is too convenient and economical not to take instead of cars
We subsidize motor vehicle use heavily. Some such gifts are obvious — road construction and maintenance, and highway patrols, for a few. Others are more subtle — tax-free land use for vehicles and the mechanical and human costs of collisions, for example. Still others have become real more recently — consider pollution and its effects on human health and wasted energy (and human time).

Some anti-mass transit folk love to select subsets of data to suggest that car and truck subsidies are more efficient than paying for intracity and intercity transit. Even doing their worst, they can't obscure that the goals of replacing car travel with T and bike and foot traffic are well worth the costs in total. Like other civilized nations and cities, we have to get with the program on this.

We can't get there if we cripple the T and make riding it expensive and unpleasant. We need to pony up, great recession or not.

The big, messy fact is that the legislature blew the T debt. It has to fix the T debt. It corrects legislative errors all the time. This boner is just far worse than average. Hiding from it won't solve anything.

Amusingly, today's Boston Globe lead editorial is yet another gormless commentary around this problem. It does note, "Nearly a third of the T’s operating budget goes to paying debt - a proportion that gives the agency little maneuvering room in bad times." Yet, it doesn't even propose or apparently address the only underlying issue — that the stupidly constructed debt is exactly the problem.

The legislature created the problem. The legislature must fix it. Surely there is at least one leader on Beacon Hill who can drive this, one who has the wit and guts .

For my part, I have been drawing attention to this at Marry in Massachusetts frequently, Blue Mass Group on occasion, and public transit hearings. I'm not the only one. I pound on forward-funding.

My mid-term vision would be a free-for-all-riders T here to reach our transit and health goals quickly. That even brought qualified support from former Gov. Michael Dukakis. He figured a buck a ride is more workable, but he and I concur on the basic need and process.

The main facts are that our car commute and visit system is terribly broken, as well as that the General Court made a huge blunder with forward funding tied to sales-tax growth. The law part they need to fix right away. The rest will come when the T — under new, clearly seeing management — is reliable, convenient and inexpensive enough to be the default 24-hour-a-day mode of getting into, out of and around.

Gov. Patrick, transit-minded Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and the legislature, get with the program. Get honest. Get responsible.

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