When does reform end and revenue begin at the T?

From Commonwealth Magazine

By James Aloisi

SO THERE I WAS, enjoying a brisk late April morning and about to dig into the newspapers (and breakfast), when my iPhone beeped and up came CommonWealth’s Sunday Upload. My pavlovian response was to stop everything I was doing and read what was on offer on the Upload. Turns out it was the folks at the Pioneer Institute, beating their privatization drum in a short article that was long on ideology and short on consensus-based solutions.

It happens that Pioneer was all exercised over what appears to have been an ill-timed and ill-conceived letter from our once-powerful congressional delegation, raising concerns about the MBTA’s interest in exploring privatizing bus maintenance. The delegation, a day late and $7.3 billion short, might have considered whether, and how, to engage the urgent issues that face the statewide public transportation system in a comprehensive and effective way. Perhaps they might consider how to build a national congressional consensus around a sustainable mobility platform that political leaders in blue and red states might embrace. But what do I know? Maybe the governor and his transportation secretary read the letter and, fully chided, agreed to look deeply into their respective ideological souls and change course.

The congressional delegation letter may not have changed the hearts or minds of state officials, but it certainly gave Pioneer the impetus to reprise the dulcet tones of their privatization songbook. And generally I’d be OK with that, especially during the quiet early morning hours of a late April Sunday, when I’m inclined toward a generosity of spirit. I even agree with their view that the MBTA retirement system needs an overhaul that would make it function in a manner consistent with the state retirement system. But Pioneer has that way with words that unfailingly pushes my buttons, and there it was, their misleading construct about how to solve the T’s enormous state-of-good-repair gap:

“With a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog and billions more in debt, the T basically faces three options: Cut service, raise fares once again, or enact reforms such as restructuring the MBTA Retirement Fund as an integrated Social Security/pension system with offsets that take pension benefits into account.”

 

Three options? Just those three? What about raising net new revenue for the T – the kind of stable revenue that would enable the T to accelerate the state-of-good-repair work we all agree is urgently needed? The kind of new revenue that would support hiring the staff resources that the T admits it doesn’t have. I thought those who embraced “reform before revenue” implicitly agreed that once reform took place, net new revenue would follow. But, of course, there is never enough reform to appease these reformers, never enough to trigger the revenue part of the equation.

I didn’t want to spoil my morning, so I dashed off a tweet that chastised both Pioneer and the congressional delegation, in keeping with my determination to approach these matters in a non-partisan manner. My friends at Pioneer must be late risers, because it took many hours before their responses hit my Twitter feed.

And I can’t complain too much about the subsequent exchange because it’s easy to misunderstand, or misinterpret, someone’s meaning when they are writing a 140-character response to something that deserves more substantial attention. As I said earlier, I don’t really have a quarrel with their position on the MBTA pension issue. My quarrel is when organizations like this cherry-pick issues (and fail to address others) in an effort to make people believe that more reform and no revenue is the answer.

I’m all for reforms – appropriate, non-ideological reforms. I share significant responsibility for writing and enacting into law the most far-reaching and comprehensive transportation reform legislation in state history. Unlike many who talk a lot about it, I embraced reform and made it happen. But I was also candid about the need for revenue. When I said at the time that the slogan “reform before revenue” was a meaningless slogan, I did so because I knew that we also needed substantial net new revenue together with the reform. Eight years later Massachusetts still doesn’t have the net new revenue needed to do the job the way (and in the timeframe) it should be done.

These are not just ideological battles. Every single week real people, thousands of them, have to face the consequences of the failure to raise net new revenue — every day they receive an alert that a disabled train at rush hour means another late arrival at work, every time they have to break a subway car window because smoke is filling their car, or every time they’re asked to impersonate a sardine packed in the can of a SL 1, or 28 bus. Calling for MBTA pension reform is fine, but let’s not mislead people into thinking that just another reform is the answer to what ails the transit system.

It is long past time for us to acknowledge the need for substantial net new revenue to build the modern, first-world transit system that is the essential underpinning of our ability to sustain a growing economy. We can talk about and enact reforms until the cows come home, but a $7.3 billion gap cannot be resolved on an accelerated basis without net new revenue. Nor can the T’s other needs, including the need for the system to strategically expand and respond adeptly to the rise of new mobility options that threaten to shrink interest in (and market share for) public transportation.

We ought to strive to reach and build a consensus across ideological lines to address the unquestioned need to rebuild and modernize the MBTA. To do that on a timeframe that keeps up with the pace of our region’s current and forecasted growth, and with an eye toward achieving sustainable and equitable outcomes, we need to honestly confront the need for substantial net new revenue. Finding excuse after excuse to avoid that fundamental issue doesn’t advance the debate, or enable the kind of non-ideological, non-partisan decision-making that ought to be at the core of how we make and implement transportation policy in the Commonwealth.

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