Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Slooooow MBTA Wreck

The MBTA transit joke continues. With a script written by the General Court and direction by chief comedian Daniel Grabauskas, the great train wreck plays daily here.

I think the formal title for the comedian is MBTA General Manager and the play itself Forward Funding Follies.

The audience is bored and hostile, and being driven away. Yet the play is all.

Yesterday's act was the announcement that (oh, great surprise) the T will suck $2.5 million from its reserves for the next fiscal year, starting in July. Imagine, when the self-funding of mass transit was built on a clumsy and mathematically impossible pyramid scheme, how could it fall short?

Moreover, when the T got to jack up its prices for decreasing service, and then blew hundreds of millions in a widely disdained and surely nation's-worst automated fare system, how could commuters not rush to take the T to hell?

Oh, wait a minute. Yes, that's right. The forward funding model assumes an endless growth spiral of sales-tax revenue from the flourishing Massachusetts economy and totally revived high-tech sector. That certainly worked for the WWII generation's scheme for keeping war-fueled economic growth lasting forever, didn't it? Oh, no, that didn't work either.

We have ridden this decrepit nag around the track a number of times, like here, here and here. The gist includes:
  • Forward funding was and is an impossible scam, a fantasy.
  • The legislature and previous governors blew this funding model.
  • Regardless of what else is pressing, the legislator and governor must totally revise this to keep the commonwealth efficient and competitive.
  • We should do whatever it takes to make commuter rail and intracity mass transit too attractive to pass up.
  • The true costs of vehicular traffic are often hidden and overlooked -- congestion, pollution, noise, resulting physical and mental diseases, plus the absurd cost per passenger mile in construction, road maintenance, traffic control and on and on.
The delusion in suburban and exurban communities, on Beacon Hill, and particularly in the Transportation Building is that we would be stupid to give mass transit commuters a break on anything. They must pay their way, or else.

The reality is more that it is stupid not to charge minimal or no fare for using mass transit. More commuters and fewer vehicles are great for the economy and health -- in macro and micro senses.

There are repressive-to-liberty-demanding-Americans methods used elsewhere. Consider London-style fees to drive into a major city or much higher gas prices.

Instead, we can accomplish most of what we need by making the MBTA in its various forms less expensive, more frequent and more efficient. We can't do this with the inane and indefensible forward funding model. Our chief comic has long and repeatedly shown that he has neither leadership skills nor vision. Like a stoner teen piling up credit-card debt, the legislature simply does not want to deal the reality of its financial non-planning blunders.

I can't see Senate President Bobby Travaglini, with one wingtip out the door, tackling this. He has passed it up many times already.

This is one area that promises a high rate of return for an investment. That's what our new governor promised repeatedly in his campaign that he'd do. We can come off as heroes and leaders, politically and economically, but first we have to admit the problem and commit to fix it.

Meanwhile, we totter on the trestle while the comedy plays on.

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Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with the Forward Funding model, all it does is say "this is your budget, you need to work within the confines of it." It's the same way the state and federal budget works, tax revenue fluctuates and they can only work with what they have.

The problem is that because of the Big Dig and the mitigation projects the T was forced to take on without funding has left the MBTA with so much debt, that 30% of their annual budget goes to debt servicing.

The T has done a lot to improve service and look for ways to find more money in non-fare areas. Last year the T had to take $10 million out of their rainy day fund, the fact that they're only taking out $2.5 million is pretty amazing.

Don't get me wrong, their is plenty to complain about and the State should do more to help fund the T, especially since growth in the sales tax has been so much under the projections set out when forward funding was instituted.

All that said, Dan Grabauskas has actually been working hard and doing a good job at making the T more efficient. He has a nearly impossible job.

massmarrier said...

Well, anonymous, I can't share your hope and rosy assessment. D.G. has shown himself arrogant and intractable in public statements, actions and at the hearings.

His job should first include hammering the legislature and executive branch with the reality that the forward funding model does not work. As you point out, its income estimates are out the window. That doesn't mean that there is nothing wrong with the model; you cannot separate the mandated budget from the mandated requirement to live in it.

Mr. G's solutions of higher fares and bleeding reserves are also failures. They put commuters back into their cars when the aim should be to increase ridership.

It doesn't work. It's broken. He is doing nothing obvious to demand the fundamental changes required. Doing the best with what he has in to the vision that will solve the problems. Engaging a good heart does little if it does not come with an engaged mind.

The T is in a death spiral of inadequate funding, decreased services, lower ridership... It is only going to get worse and faster if the funding piece is not changed.