The Purpose of Transit: Neither Reform Nor Revenue are the Needed Starting Point

It’s now semi-official – everyone agrees that the MBTA needs both reform and revenue.  No one says (publicly) that the current T and Commuter Rail budget is too big for its mission.  And that’s where the agreement ends – with the question of what is the MBTA’s mission, vision, and values:  what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Is our transit system a public mobility service for everyone (including the elderly, disabled, and young) for all types of uses (commuting, shopping, socializing) across all parts of the region (or perhaps the entire state) or are particular components more important than the rest?  Similarly, while increased customer service is a generally-agreed upon priority, which customers should get what level of what kinds of service at what cost?  And in the larger scale, is the T only about transportation, and should it be run to maximize its operation’s internal cost-efficiency regardless of “off-budget” externalities, or is it about a broad range of social goals and public benefits – in the Frontier Group’s words “[fulfilling] a transportation need at lower public expense than the available alternatives (e.g., adding another lane to the Big Dig),…deliver[ing] public benefits that exceed the costs (e.g., reducing air pollution or curbing congestion), or…meet[ing] a pressing and vital societal need (e.g., providing mobility to the disabled)”.   Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent Globe OpEd added another dimension: “The cities identified as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation.  Through better transportation, American cities can provide opportunities for millions to escape poverty.”

At the recent Legislative hearing on MBTA reform, Governor Baker said that this winter’s collapse showed that the T was vital to our regional economy and explicitly stated that he had no interest in privatizing the MBTA, in laying off Carmen Union members, or raising fares beyond many people’s ability to pay.  This was a welcome public statement, a positive opening for future discussion.  But it can’t be the final word.

Add yours – Transportation for Massachusetts (T4Ma), the coalition leading the progressive effort for better and more public transit, has set up an email program to automatically send a message to your Representative and Senator – use it!.

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 FOR WHO, FOR WHAT, PAID HOW

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack has enough progressive credentials to credibly say that she wants to create a transit system that serves everyone.  But Advocates and community leaders worry that regardless of her personal intentions the Administration’s political allies, if not the Governor himself, have a different long-range agenda.  Is their emphasis on making the MBTA live within its already inadequate means ultimately about reducing the size of the public sector, creating space that private firms can move in to?  Is the focus on mismanagement and overspending simply a cover for continued disinvestment?  And is the talk about using public-private partnerships to expand service actually a step towards replacing  our relatively egalitarian public transportation system with a set of market-driven transportation services that essentially rations access to service by ability to pay, trickling hardships down to those with the fewest resources?

Transportation advocates point out that the amount of savings possible through management reforms are dwarfed by the amount needed:  the state’s own figures show that bringing the T’s neglected equipment back to a state-of-good-repair will require at least $6 billion, and being able to handle the estimated 400,000 additional trips that the system will carry over the next ten years will require additional funds.  State-wide, revitalizing the state’s Gateway Cities will require even more investment in an expanded rail system.

In contrast, the Governor’s proposals will forgo up to a half billion dollars in promised future state funding of the transportation system including not only the T but also roads, bridges, sidewalks, and bike facilities – the T’s portion was supposed to make up for the failure of the sales tax to deliver anticipated amounts. The Governor also wants to redirect all of the T’s state contract assistance money to debt retirement, which will put additional pressure on the operating budget and lead to either large service cutbacks or large fare increases – something that the Administration makes possible by proposing to go beyond the 5% every-two-year schedule of increases that was approved in 2013.  (It’s not clear why raising T fares doesn’t fall within Baker’s refusal to raise taxes or fees.)  And it appears that announced expansions such as the South Coast Rail and an upgraded Fitchburg Line will be indefinitely delayed – or scrapped.

As part of his critique of basing ticket prices on income levels, Former Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi points out that “the competitive, choice-based micro-transit mobility paradigms of our times – Uber, Bridj and emerging alternatives” will siphon off those able to pay for good service and “the T will soon become the transit mode of necessity, and not of choice. Once that happens the T is doomed…the poster child for the tale of two cities…because its [lower income] riders will never have the political clout to argue effectively for a proper level of investment and service quality and reliability.”  Or, as I would put it, things that our society only gives to the poor are usually poorly done.

POLITICAL REALITIES

Secretary Pollack probably reads today’s political climate correctly in saying that there currently isn’t any appetite among Congress (who haven’t been able to pass a Transportation Bill for many years), state Legislators (who regularly refuse to appropriate General Funds money to the T), the Administration (with its small government vision), or even voters (who just killed a very modest set of future increases in the gas tax) for sending huge sums to mass transit – or even to roads.  Maybe spurred by the controversy, the state Senate’s version of the FY2016 budget maintains the fare-increase controls the 2013 Transportation Finance Act as well as some contract assistance and new state-wide funding.  However, MassDOT officials sometimes imply, there may even be a public desire – however irrational – to punish the T for last winter’s disasters.  Unless the T can dramatically and irrefutably clean up its own act, there is very little chance that new revenue will be forthcoming.  The Special Panel’s call for a temporary Fiscal Control Board with the unilateral power to change working conditions, revise contracts, and raise fares is a key part of this process .

Jim Aloisi counters that up to $300 million a year could be raised “without having to raise taxes, fares or fees” by moving the MBTA debt from the agency’s books to the Commonwealth’s and by equalizing our modal expenditures through re-allocating money from delayed metro-area highway projects.  But even these steps require some political will and Pollack’s analysis may still hold.

The total unpreparedness of the T and the Commuter Rail system it oversees to deal with this past winter’s snow was embarrassing enough.   And then the Baker Administration escalated public anger when it’s Special Panel released a Report describing the Agency’s management and fiscal systems as broken if not incompetent and suffering from “pervasive organizational failure.”  True or not, the Report has framed the media coverage and political debate.   So far, there has been a slow process of business-sector and Legislative capitulation to the Report’s calls for temporarily transferring control to a new Fiscal Control Board, significantly increasing managerial authority over operations, focusing investment on upgrading existing equipment rather than expansion, and creating a more accountable chain of command, among other suggestions.

And the political momentum seems to be with the Governor. The Legislature seems eager to let the new Administration own the transportation system’s problems – which is partly why it appears that his requests for new management power will pass despite huge questions about some of the facts the proposals are based on.   There have been signs that the Legislative leadership is willing to carry through on its non-binding promise to provide modest amounts of increased funding to the transit system to cover its growing operating deficit, although it’s not yet clear if those funds will come from the General Fund or continue to be drawn from the Transportation Fund – thereby diverting capital funds from their intended purpose.  Further limiting funding options:  Baker’s claim that he’s inherited a $1.5 billion deficit has made it even harder to push for additional T revenue.

TRANSFORMATION

Transportation and Community Advocates have been reluctant and slow to admit that the MBTA has serious managerial and operational problems, seeing those issues as opening the door to attacks on the legitimacy of the public system as a whole.  But the scathing Special Panel Report – despite the subsequent debunking of many of its headline-grabbing statistics – has made this an unavoidable part of the current discussion.  Transportation for Massachusetts, now applauds the state Senate’s inclusion of key gubernatorial requests as “provid[ing] the Governor with increased control over the MBTA, enabling the Administration to implement much needed reforms to improve accountability, transparency, and customer focus.”

Pollack – who probably knows as much or more than anyone else in Massachusetts about transportation data – adamantly stands by the numbers and the conclusions.  And even if the headline grabbing items are false, there is enough left over to generate awkward media revelations for weeks to come.  No one can still pretend that operations are good enough that most of the problems will be completely solved by throwing money at them.  Advocates have begun to acknowledge the necessity of internal changes, better managerial tools, and top-to-bottom accountability towards service-driven metrics.

The Special Panel and Secretary Pollack go further.  They say that the agency’s internal problems can’t be fixed with the fiscal and management tools currently available.  It even seems possible that even more than reform the MBTA needs, in Secretary Pollack’s words, to be “transformed” – and her comments sometimes hint that the needed operational changes must come as much from the management side as from the labor side.   The T is unique among state authorities and municipal governments in lacking the right to not accept an arbitrator’s recommendations in labor contract disputes.  The T lacks needed scheduling flexibility both for personnel and vehicles.  In addition to the management failures that led to the State Auditor’s rejection of past MBTA outsourcing requests, the controlling Pacheco Bill is so constricting that “it prevents the T from proposing some of the changes the agency envisions, never mind winning approval.”  The current Board of Directors simply doesn’t have the ability to meet often enough or to dig deeply enough to understand much less deal with the complexity of the T’s problems.  The Pension Board is a bastion of non-transparency.  And more and more.

The Legislature is likely to give the Governor much of what he wants.  Still, the fight over both reform and revenue will continue until we first daylight the underlying big issue of Purpose.

STARTING WITH THE END IN MIND

Conservatives make no secret of their desire to shrink government, to replace tax-supported public services with profit-seeking private businesses; to let business seek and serve the customer’s they choose based on market demand.  It’s hard not to see the imposition of a Fiscal and Managerial Control Board on top of the T as a statement that the only thing that really counts is cutting costs – and as a step in the anti-public sector agenda.

It is probably impossible to achieve consensus about the proper role or size of government, or the strengths and weaknesses of the business market.  But we can step back from this ultimate vision and start by agreeing about the purpose and values of our transportation system.

At a recent forum, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack closed with a description that should probably have been her opener.  Picking up on a situation described by Aloisi, she said that the mother and little kids waiting in the rain at a Roxbury bus stop don’t care who or what’s at fault for the bus not showing up.  They only know that their basic need to get somewhere isn’t being met by an organization that is supposed to do so.  They’re cold and wet and they’ve been let down in many ways.  How we respond to their needs through the provision of transportation services, she said, is less important than its accomplishment.

But in all the back and forth about reform and revenue, facts and ideology, very little has been said about how to restructure governance and operations to ensure that people like that family have an effective voice.  If the Administration is still committed to serving everyone, how to they propose to ensure that the system adequately serves those most in need of public transit – the janitors and school kids and low-income families whose increased participation in society and access to jobs will stimulate the entire economy and the welfare of all?

Vision first.  If we all – the Baker Administration, transportation advocates, the public, and the media – consistently started from the commitment to serve that family and the thousands of others like them, then we can begin talking about what kinds of reforms to achieve, what changes we need to make, and what kind of revenues from what kinds of sources we need to have to accomplish it.  The unveiling of a “Transit Diary Survey” by the MBTA Advisory Board to “gather real, everyday experiences of MBTA riders” as the basis for service improvements “especially [for] transit dependent populations” is a good start, but not enough. Even before we debate reform and revenue, we need to be clear about why we’re doing it — the controlling purpose, the vision and values.    Maybe then we can work through to some agreement about methods.   And, if that can’t be done, at least we’ll be clearer about what we’re really fighting over.