The Metropolitan Boston Transportation Authority (MBTA, or “T” for short) is in deep financial trouble, with nearly $9 billion of debt and a $3 billion maintenance backlog that is growing more every year. According to a Boston Herald op ed by Harvard researcher Charles Chieppo, the blame for this can be placed on the Dukakis administration and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).
When Massachusetts was planning the Big Dig, CLF sued demanding investments in transit to mitigate the air pollution generated by new auto traffic resulting from the Big Dig’s minor expansions in highway capacity. Dukakis settled by agreeing to build 14 new transit projects.
In fact, those transit investments did little or nothing to clean the air. For one thing, relieving congestion actually reduces air pollution. For another, cars today are so clean that persuading people to ride transit instead does little for air quality.
According to the op ed, a Harvard think tank called the Rappaport Institute once calculated that “air quality could have been improved just as much if the commonwealth took 200 dirty cars off the road and replaced them with hybrids.”
That’s not exactly right. In fact, the Institute estimated that replacing 500 dirty cars with hybrids would do more to clean the air than one of the 14 new transit lines. Still even if the state had to replace 7,000 (14 times 500) dirty cars, it would have been a lot cheaper than building the rail lines.
Chieppo comments that, “the so-called transit mitigation requirements werenâ€™t about clean air; they were about dictating how people should live.” “Dictating” is such a strong word; it’s more like nudging: live the wrong way, face a lot of congestion; live the right way, get huge transportation subsidies. Right-thinking is rewarded; wrong-thinking is punished.
The dual problems are that the environmental consequences of the “wrong way” aren’t that much different from the supposed right way, but the fiscal consequences are huge since roads largely pay for themselves (highway subsidies in Massachusetts are less than a penny per passenger mile) but rail transit can’t (MTBA’s 2010 operating subsidies averaged more than 60 cents a passenger mile; when added to annualized capital subsidies the total must be around a dollar).
Unfortunately, few major cities have learned this lesson. As Chieppo notes, Massachusetts is moving to build another rail line at a cost of $2 billion. Will it improve the environment? No. Will it help sink a transit agency that is already mired in debt? Yes.