TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers

Massachusetts’ difficulty in finding ways to sustainably support its public transportation system (and its still-stuttering efforts to improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure) – in other words, its continuing inability to move away from overwhelming dependence on cars – is simply a specific example of a national problem.  In Congress and in many states cars are still king, if only because most people have no other choice:  a 2003 Harvard study found that owning a dependable car was a better predictor of finding and maintaining a job than having a GED.

As in many other jurisdictions, Massachusetts’ MBTA’s budget crisis, temporarily settled by fare hikes and service cuts, will return again next year as an even bigger and more catastrophic problem.  The MBTA Board has just approved a FY13 budget that depends on $61 million in one-time and uncertain revenues – and still ends up with a $100 million funding gap in FY14. The rerun will wreak havoc not only on the 1.24 million people who use the MBTA every day but on the entire Metro-region economy.  A 10% drop in T ridership, within the range of possibility for the current reductions and probably an underestimate if future cuts are needed, will cost the state economy nearly $66 million a year simply dues to increased road congestion.  Even car drivers will suffer as more people are forced to get back into their cars and endure even higher levels of time-wasting congestion, injurious accidents, and greater air/water pollution.

But the Legislature doesn’t seem willing to save the T.  They seem to see it as a Boston problem, or at least an eastern Massachusetts problem.  Why should people in the rest of the state, or even people in the metro area who don’t use public transit, have to pay extra to help those who do?  Most Massachusetts residents use cars, not busses or trains, and they’ve got a whole lot of higher priority personal stresses.

We seem to be at a stalemate.  For the past several years, the opposition has hid behind the slogan of “reform before revenue” – demanding that the MBTA reduce waste, inefficiency, and favoritism before being considered “worthy” of any additional support.  And, in fact, the past three Secretaries of Transportation have taken this challenge seriously.  MassDOT in general, and the MBTA in specific, have found an estimated $125 million in annual savings. There isn’t much water left to squeeze from that stone.

But it’s not clear how to move forward from here.

Perhaps the best strategy is to stop focusing on the T itself.  Perhaps it would make more sense to accept that cars are still the most commonly used method of travel, and given our infrastructure and living patterns they are likely to remain dominant even while both gas prices and sea levels rise.  Perhaps it’s time to more directly acknowledge the public transportation needs of people living in the “mid-west” and “western” parts of the state – and even in parts of the Metro area that are poorly served by the T.  Perhaps we should stop talking about transportation as a separate issue and start framing discussions about public investment around a package of issues including economic development and personal health, children’s safety and neighborhood quality, access to jobs and availability of services.

We need to develop policies that accept the car-saturated current reality as the unavoidable starting point, while laying the foundation for movement towards a more balanced and (economically, environmentally, and medically) healthy future.  It’s true that the rising cost of car use and the collapsing value of outer fringe housing will slowly push people into denser and more mixed-use walkable neighborhoods.  But if the process is only driven by market forces, the pain and disruption of the transitions will fall disproportionately on those with the least power and resources.  The quicker, less costly, and more equitably we want the change to occur, the more we need to push for enabling zoning, building code, and transportation policies and projects. In short, perhaps we have to be bolder and more visionary in our goals while becoming more modest about our starting points.

The basic political fact is that the MBTA fiscal crisis will only be solved as part of a broader and visionary package to revitalize the state’s (and the nation’s) entire transportation system in a way that simultaneously incorporates goals related to issues traditionally seen as separate.

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THE POLITICAL STALEMATE

Nationally, transit is seen as an urban issue.  Across Massachusetts it’s a Boston-focused issue – and to the extent people associate the T with subways and inner-city buses rather than commuter rail, perhaps even an out-of-state student and non-white issue.  It’s true that nearly three-quarters of the state population lives within the MBTA service area. But a high percentage of those people use their cars much more than the T.  Those people, along with entire cities outside the T zone, aren’t thrilled by the chance to pay more, through gas taxes or other mechanisms, to cover either the T’s debt service or its inevitable operating deficits.  “I want to let you that know that’s an issue,” said Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.

As West Springfield Representative Michael J. Finn pointed out in opposing the MBTA’s use of surplus from a fund containing state-wide car-inspection fees, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority is also facing a fare increase. Why should the eastern part of the state get so much more than everywhere else?

Transportation Secretary Richard Davy showed enormous political savvy by holding 31 public hearings about the T’s fiscal dilemma, attracting over 6,000 people – who got a chance to see each other, to realize their numbers, and to express their common anger.  The hearings catalyzed broad public mobilization and media coverage, getting the business community to finally go public in support of the T’s vital importance.  But a key theme of the campaign – that the T was in trouble because of being unfairly burdened with huge amounts of Big Dig debt that eats up over a quarter of its total budget – was a two-edged sword. (See end note about this.*)  Like the subway, the Big Dig is widely seen as a Boston project – nothing but a poorly-managed and over-priced embarrassment to the rest of the state.

Tying a state-wide gas tax increase to a T bail-out is even more problematic.  The state gas tax hasn’t been increased for 20 years and is now worth a small fraction of its original amount.  But the Legislature seems has repeatedly refused to even contemplate gas tax increases – even when the proceeds were to be used for roads, much less when it would (even partially) be used for the T.

CAR-BASED OPPORTUNISM

In Congress, Republicans are leading the charge to roll-back any effort to reduce national dependence on the automobile. The GOP-run House of Representatives’ version of a Transportation Funding bill was so reactionary that it turned out to be an embarrassment rather than a campaign platform, although given the conservative tilt in Congress many of its provisions are likely to re-appear in whatever final legislation is passed.  This partly reflects the GOP’s umbilical cord connection to the oil, auto, steel, coal, road construction, suburban real estate, and other industries whose profits derive from the car industry.  And it partly reflects their distorted description of “the marketplace” – claiming that our current auto-centric society is the result of consumer choice and shouldn’t be undermined by social-engineering elitists.  Of course, the opposite is actually true:  our current mono-modal situation was created by decades of past big business and government efforts to deliberately shape our economy and landscapes in car-centric ways, giving consumers little choice but to use their cars, as so well described in the new book, Fighting Traffic. (See End Note +)

But being pro-car is also a smart political move, if only in the short term.  Cities and urbanized areas may be where most of our population lives and where most of our economy happens and the leading edge of the future.  However, the realities of sprawling post-WWII development patterns mean that today most people are, in fact, totally dependent on their cars.  While mass transit can only run down a relatively few and fixed routes on relatively few and limited schedules, individual vehicles conveniently permit movement at any time from any point to any other point.  During the 1950s, as the auto became an integral part of mainstream American life, cars transformed every aspect of our living patterns and even our culture – as any “submarine race watching” teenager or Rock-and-Roll enthusiast could attest.   Outside of metropolitan areas only 1.2% of Americans take public transit to work.

So it’s smart politics, even if only for the short-term, for conservatives to prioritize cars and roads at the expense of trains, trolleys, subways, buses, bikes, and even sidewalks.  People in much of the American continent don’t have access to any of those “alternative” modes.  They drive.

However, as both the cost of car ownership and the time-sink of congestion continue to increase, the old strategy of “moving outward until you can buy in” no longer works for most people.  According to a 2005 study by the Center for Housing Policy  for every dollar saved in outer-suburb housing costs Americans were paying 77 cents more on transportation – and it’s only gotten worse since then.  In a context where the inflation adjusted median personal income hasn’t moved for nearly half a century, and nearly a quarter of US households have zero (or even negative) net worth, people with no choice but to drive are increasingly frustrated .

BROADENING THE AGENDA

In “A New Green Agenda for Commuters,” Lisa Margonelli points out that we can move only by accepting our starting point.  Rather than fantasize the end of the automobile, she suggests that we create federally guaranteed loan programs for purchasing highly efficient cars; provide incentives for employers to create car pools, van services, telecommuting, and other programs.  Instead of funding particular transportation modes, she thinks we should revise Highway Trust Fund formulas to reward states that “hit benchmarks for moving people with less oil” while expanding the available travel options. Instead of seeing transportation as a public monopoly, she emphasizes the need to include opportunities for private sector innovators to create a “mobility supermarket” of choices.  Programs like these, she says, will create the political base for raising road-use fees and fuel taxes.

Echoing the need to focus on multi-dimensional impacts rather than transportation per se, the national Transportation For America coalition proposes that future funding programs be structured to appeal to broader constituencies by being required to measurably demonstrate how they advance progress towards a broad spectrum of national goals, from environmental improvements to energy sustainability, from public health to more cost-effective development patterns.   This call to broaden the mission and evaluation of transportation projects also conforms to the new National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, in the introduction to which Surgeon General Doctor Regina Benjamin writes, to “move from a system of sick care to one based on wellness and prevention” we need to incorporate health in everything, recognizing that “our housing, transportation, education, workplaces, and environment are major elements that impact the physical and mental health of Americans.”

THE BAY STATE REALITY

The Democratic Party’s dominance of Massachusetts politics makes the geographic issues stand out even more clearly.  Transit is vital to cities:  nearly 55% of all work-related trips into Boston involve T services, as do a significant percentage of shopping and entertainment trips into and within the city.  The coming cutbacks will generate over 400,000 daily additional vehicles miles, adding to traffic congestion and delays.  A Health Impact Assessment (HIA) conducted by researchers from the BU and Harvard schools of public health estimated that the proposed service and fare changes will cost families a total of about $300,000 year. This is going to really hurt everyone – not just T users and not just the three-quarters of our population who live in the eastern third of the state, but everyone in every town.  Our economy won’t grow as fast, fewer taxes will be generated, our collective health will deteriorate and our health care bills will increase.  If the coming changes leads to only a 10% drop in ridership – within the range of official estimates – the resulting increase in road congestion will cost the state economy nearly $66 million a year.

But who should pay?  And through what mechanisms? Recently, most of the funding ideas have focused on the immediate crisis at the MBTA. The MBTA Board wants MassPort to take over the commuter ferry service and “buy” the related docks and parking lots.  The Herald says that the T should simply sell them to private owners. The MBTA Advisory Board proposed requiring the major institutions that benefit the most from public transportation to pay more – large institutions such as Boston University and the Tufts Medical Center would have to pay an annual MBTA fees, and “large public performance venues” such as Fenway Park and Boston Garden would include a 50 cent MBTA surcharge on all tickets.

Former Transportation Secretary Fred Salvucci also points to MassPort, saying that Logan Airport was the single biggest beneficiary of the Big Dig – about 50% of the total Dig costs went to improving car travel under the Harbor which increased access to its parking garages.  Salvucci says that a large percentage of the Logan garage revenue, perhaps up to $100 million a year, should be used to cover the MBTA’s debt service.  (MassPort’s 2011 revenue from fees, rentals, and concessions increased to nearly $538 million.) Salvucci suggests that having this much of the T’s debt burden assigned to a Boston-area institution might make it politically possible to ask the rest of the state to contribute something as well.

The narrow focus on Boston-based solutions to MBTA finances comes partly because of the rapid collapse of a 2009 bill submitted for the Patrick Administration by former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi that proposed raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation, piloting a switch from the gas tax to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee, as well as adding a $2 surcharge to Logan Airport parking dedicated to offset the air problems caused by its being one of the top five destinations in the state for single-occupancy vehicle trips.  But this, again, was described in the media primarily in the context of saving the MBTA.

It is time to try again – this time connecting a state-wide revenue strategy with a state-wide transportation plan.  This approach will disappoint the more apocalyptic among us who (correctly) believe that a massive shift towards transit and non-motorized modes is necessary to avoid or at least mitigate approaching environmental, resource economic, and social justice disasters; but if the end is nigh then it’s probably too late anyway.  I hold on to the hope that this approach, even though fundamentally incremental, can be transformative if done well. And, unlike the repeated efforts to win straight-forward bailouts for the MBTA and the nation’s other mass transit systems, it might even secure enough political support to get enacted.

A STATE-LEVEL ALTERNATIVE

In Massachusetts (and in other states) a state-wide transportation-system policy would include providing more technical assistance to local municipal transportation officials and staff, who design and maintain the vast majority of our roads, while also requiring them to begin following state standards for lane widths, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and transit access.  It would include a renewal of the Accelerated Bridge Program to deal with some of the 343 structurally deficient bridges that will remain after the current funding runs out in 2016, including a requirement that the extensive public input processes developed for the Charles River bridge design efforts be expanded state-wide.  (It sometimes seems that any DOT project that isn’t aggressively monitored by advocates ends up with more than minimal – or without any — pedestrian or bicycle accommodations, as seems to be what happened with the $125 million dollar Chelsea Street Bridge.)  There would be state support for a vastly expanded Safe Routes To School program, including program support for involving teachers and parents, technical assistance for road redesign, and money for infrastructure improvements. And there would also be a Safe Routes For Seniors program providing similar services around every social service institution used by the elderly.

A Massachusetts agenda would provide significant upgrades in financing and performance criteria for the 15 non-Boston Regional Transportation Authorities, helping them set up (or foster private-sector) Express Bus systems around each of the “Gateway Cities”  and tie them to an expanded Transit Orientated Development program as well as a concerted push to reform our state’s “most antiquated in the nation” zoning laws to facilitate more concentrated “village center” growth in suburban and rural communities. It would create Bus Rapid Transit systems around Routes 495 and I-95/128 as well as in the larger outlying cities such as Springfield and Worcester.  And more.

In fact, why not open the discussion up to the entire public with an “open submission” process to allow everyone to submit ideas followed by an on-line “choose the ideas you think are best” system, followed by a “citizens’ forum” of people from around the state charged with coming up with some unified package.  It might create a way for the entire state to buy into a state-wide agenda, forcing everyone to accept proposals that help others, a process similar to what happens when neighborhood leaders come together to create city-wide budgets.

Whatever the details, the starting point has to be an understanding that in the current political climate of right wing strength and fiscal limits, urban and progressive forces do not have the clout to push through narrowly focused major initiatives for subways, or high-speed rail or anything else.  And that may not be a bad thing – our nation’s entire transportation system is unable to move us into the 21st century and while this country may be in a long-term decline, there is no reason that we should be hastening our own collapse.  A broader perspective that accepts the need to address problems with the existing infrastructure while laying the foundation for a different future may be exactly what we need.  And it might even allow us to let Charlie keep using the MBTA.

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*END NOTE ABOUT MBTA DEBT AND THE BIG DIG – There is a widespread misperception that the MBTA is paying for highway construction.  It’s not.  In order to mitigate the increased air pollution that would be produced by the additional traffic attracted by the Dig’s expanded car capacity, the state made a legal settlement with the Conservation Law Foundation, to expand several transit lines and do a variety of other transit-related infrastructure improvements.  The MBTA was assigned the task of fulfilling this legal requirement with the understanding that the state would cover up to 90% of the cost of this construction.  However the Legislature later reneged on this agreement, leaving the MBTA stuck with the full cost of the project.  As a result, the MBTA now spends nearly a quarter of its entire $1.7 billion budget on servicing its $9 billion debt, a higher percentage of its budget than any other mass transit program in the nation.

+END NOTE ABOUT THE “FREE MARKET” – The entire vision of “free market” competition that libertarians believe in and pro-business forces exploit is a delusion, something that only exists in small niches of the economy for short periods of time.  In any emerging business the economies of scale and the need to protect market share force firms to build on their strengths and try to grow; and the realities of power mean that the successful become more so, pushing aside or swallowing their rivals.  And as they grow they inevitably form alliances with local elites in banking, retailing, related manufacturing, and government – seeking ways to merge their interests and slowly becoming mutually dependent.  It is normal and inevitable, rather than an accident or perversion of economic dynamics, that the very definition of a “mature industry” is that it is dominated by a very few giant firms – a process that is now being played out globally.  At best, some technological or marketing or production innovation will eventually allow new actors to work around the current giants and create a new space – this is the “creative destruction” aspect of capitalism at its best.  But this process is neither quick nor certain, and when it happens the next sector will eventually fall into the same unavoidable pattern as their predecessors.

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Other relevant posts:

>LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

>SAVING PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: Safe Routes To The “T”

>THE THREE LEGS OF TRANSPORTATION REFORM: And Why MassDOT Has To Start Standing On At Least Two Of Them

>YOU CAN’T PLAN A ROUTE UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING: Comments on MassDOT’s 2010-2015 Capital Investment Plan

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