How we fix the T is a reflection of our political values, writes a former state transportation secretary.

Credit: Cristina Quinn / WGBH

Why The Globe Is Wrong About MBTA Reform

May 19, 2015

Monday, May 18 was one of those days when I thanked God for small favors. I read The Boston Globe’s editorial on the proposed MBTA “reforms” later in the day, thus avoiding having it spoil my breakfast and lunch. As I normally precede dinner with a libation, I was unconcerned about any possible lingering effects the Globe’s ill-informed and wrong-headed editorial would have on the rest of my day.

For brevity's sake, I offer the three top reasons why the Globe editorial board got it wrong on how to fix the MBTA:

  1. The editorial supports the proposal to lift the cap on MBTA fares.

    The cap on MBTA fares ensures that they will remain affordable to many of the people who take the T by necessity. Lifting that cap will endanger the egalitarian public transportation system that is, and ought to be, a cornerstone of our society. It has taken decades to grow support for modal funding equity — a leveling of the transportation playing field that recognizes both the economic impact of good public transit and its social equity implications. Lifting the fare cap (or as the Globe editorial board genteelly puts it, creating "the freedom to raise fares") is neither a meaningful nor fair way to raise the substantial net new revenue that the T must have for critical state-of-good-repair needs.

  2. The editorial supports the creation of needless new bureaucracy.

    The governor now has complete control over the MassDOT/MBTA Board. That Board can do whatever he and Secretary Pollack want them to do. Why, then, do we need another layer of bureaucracy in the guise of a fiscal control board? I know from experience: Boards rarely facilitate anything; more often they frustrate. Having two boards compounds the problem, and will almost certainly deprive the administration of the ability to develop internal consensus and move forward with agility. A subcommittee of the current MassDOT Board can easily serve this role. Having a fiscal control board will undo the hard-fought 2009 MassDOT consolidation reforms, and shift the unpopular decision making to a group of green eyeshade types who, I guarantee you, will not understand the plight of the working mom waiting in the rain for the 28 bus because there is no decent shelter at Mattapan Station.

  3. The editorial supports repealing the Pacheco law despite the facts.

    The repeal of the Pacheco law has been an ideological fight going back over two decades. There is no evidence — none — that it has ever prevented a substantial pubic private partnership or other privatization from taking place. To the contrary, as the editorial points out, 12 of 15 MBTA requests for private contracts have been approved since the law took effect. Opposition to the Pacheco law is really union busting in sheep’s clothing. The facts do not support any conclusion that the law has had a costly or negative impact on service delivery. The State Auditor, who regulates the law, has so testified. Yet the Globe supports its “temporary” repeal.

    The editorial also missed two important realities. First, the subject of management rights, which is a legitimate issue, has nothing to do with the Pacheco law. The more useful discussion should be one that focuses on management rights. Second, the biggest reason why Massachusetts does not have a strong record of public/private partnerships (P3s) is that our P3 law is weak and not state-of-the-art. One glaring example: it is virtually impossible for a serious private sector company to make an unsolicited proposal to the T, or any other agency. Yet such proposals can often become the spark that ignites a successful P3. In addition, our P3 law is bogged down by the need to have every proposed action vetted by yet another special board, making true P3 professionals look elsewhere to offer their creative ideas. Fix that flawed law first, and it will be clear what is really impeding change in this area.

And there’s more. The editorial offers weak support for critically needed reinvestment in the T’s infrastructure, and strangely fixes its attention on Boston legislators, declaring: “Boston, more than almost anyplace else in the Commonwealth, needs those reforms.” Yet the MBTA service area covers 75 percent of the state’s population. None of the discussion about our public transportation system is solely, or even mostly, about Boston.

I remain frustrated that in the aftermath of this winter’s historic MBTA meltdown, the debate is focused on whether we should add to our already groaning bureaucracy, turn away from an egalitarian public transport system, and repeal a law that has acted as a fair way to balance creative approaches to service delivery with fairness to labor. And I am left wondering: Who will speak up for our values?

James Aloisi is a former Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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