1.3 million riders were were effected by the MBTA's winter breakdown.

Credit: Amanda Kersey / WGBH News

Fixing The MBTA: What Some People Just Don't Understand

May 21, 2015

Jim Aloisi is in high dudgeon about the Monday Globe’s editorial (“Why the Globe is Wrong About MBTA Reform”) in support of the Governor’s MBTA reform. With his trademark flare, Aloisi frames his criticisms with a lively image about the trajectory of his breakfast. 

The only thing he is regurgitating, though, are his past statements when he served as Governor Patrick’s Secretary of Transportation: Public transportation is great; the T is great; give the T more money.

His piece reads as though a few people were inconvenienced this winter.  Last I remember 1.3 million riders were stranded on platforms in freezing conditions, the region shuttered for weeks on end.

It’s not like the service is good any time during the year. According to MBTA and Federal Transit Administration data, more than 8 million MBTA commuter rail passenger trips were delayed in 2011 and 2012 by late or cancelled trains. This record has translated into loss of ridership, loss of revenue, and bigger operating deficits. The MBTA has long dressed up these statistics for public consumption by “excusing” more than half of the late trains from public reports, but commuters know what the service is like. 

This winter’s avalanche of snow was just the prism that gave us a close view into how bad the T has gotten. 

The T’s costs are spiraling out of control. It has neglected deferred maintenance and — astoundingly — stopped tracking its repair backlog five years ago.

Even as it faced annual operating deficits requiring an annual taxpayer subsidy of over $1 billion, the MBTA Board of Directors inexplicably authorized $47 million to purchase the Pittsfield-to-Connecticut Housatonic line over the objections of the T’s own advisory board.  It purchased a CSX line to Gillette Stadium for $15 million, with plans to spend $40 million more for upgrades over the objections of Foxborough town officials.  And the MBTA has continued unabated with its plans to undertake a $2.4 billion dollar South Coast Rail project that will serve 4,500 commuters. (As costs inevitably rise, the project could cost $1 million per passenger just to construct.

Fixing our historic transit system will not be tea and crumpet time.  We face a full-fledged emergency that requires an emergency response. 

Aloisi makes three arguments against the Globe’s position and the Governor’s MBTA reform bill.  One is constructive, two lack in substance.  Let’s start with the positive. 

Jim calls for caution in raising fares.  In fact, raising fares before service improves could reduce T revenues.  Notwithstanding the fact that the MBTA added more commuter track miles than other major transit systems in the country over the past 25 years, quickly raised fares and continued substandard service led, remarkably, to a decline of 13 percent in commuter rail ridership from 2003 to 2013.

The Governor’s package recognizes this risk and calls for the freedom to raise or lower fares.  We can’t fix (or pay for) the T if we are hemorrhaging riders.  Some increases in fares, parking fees and penalties, and new charges for high-quality Wi-Fi may have merit, but the administration should consider targeted fare decreases to attract more riders. 

Aloisi’s argument against the control board proposal lacks substance. An added layer of bureaucracy?  How many bureaucracies do you know of that put themselves out of business once they complete their job?  Control boards are time-limited emergency entities that focus on fixing problems. 

The Springfield control board experience is illustrative. It met frequently and sped hard decisions such as addressing massive citywide tax delinquency, restructuring management, establishing performance metrics, and moving the management of the local pension fund to the state’s higher-performing system.  Importantly, it made public what had long been hidden from view and brought expertise to the task of improving city operations. 

The time-limited nature of the control board ensured urgency. Within 18 months, the control board took a city that was $41 million in the red to $10 million in the black.

As regards the Governor’s call to relax the anti-privatization “Pacheco” law, Aloisi makes an ostrich-like stretch in saying that “there is no evidence – none – that [the law] has ever prevented a substantial public private partnership or other privatization.” The Pacheco law was designed to make competitive contracting too onerous for anyone to try. It has succeeded wildly. Since its passage 21 years ago, there have been only three T privatization proposals (for bus operations, bus shelters, and T real estate). Two have been rejected. The bus shelter plan was rejected even though the proposal was to clean shelters for free and provide the T with a revenue stream from advertising. 

The law prevents any reasonable employment of outsourcing. The MBTA’s CFO noted that when the T, through an exemption in the Pacheco Law, was able to outsource maintenance of the authority’s diesel buses, they saved 50 percent.  My organization has demonstrated that were the T able to operate at the efficiency of an average US transit system, it would annually save about $40 million of the $80 million we spend on all bus maintenance.

In essence, Aloisi opposes the Governor’s proposal to restore the right of MBTA management to competitively procure services, a reform that was instituted in 1980 through the leadership of then-state representative Barney Frank, no union buster.  That right was extinguished by the union-protectionist Pacheco Law a decade later. 

It is time to focus on making our historic mass transit system worthy of Greater Boston’s modern day knowledge-driven economy. That will take a control board, equipped with a timeline, a tightly worded mission, and new powers to deliver high-quality services. The Globe recognizes how important this work is to the region, and it should be applauded. The time for tea-and-crumpet reforms ended this winter.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

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