Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is $9 billion in debt. It has at least a $3 billion maintenance backlog. It must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing, but its maintenance budget this year is just $100 million. So when Boston shoemaker New Balance said that it was willing to spend $16 million building a new commuter rail station next to its headquarters, and to pay to maintain that station for the next decade, Boston transit officials were overjoyed.
The Atlantic calls this a public-private partnership. While it might be considered appropriate that employers help pay for transit stops that serve their employees, there’s another question no one else seems to be asking: how much will the transit line to serve this stop cost taxpayers?
The station is on a transit line that recently has had poor commuter-rail service because the passenger trains conflict with freight trains. In 2011, the state had to pay CSX $100 million to move most of its freight trains elsewhere. Since then, the state has spent more than $40 million upgrading the line. While New Balance might pay to maintain the station, taxpayers will have to pay to operate trains on the route.
Last week, San Antonio voters overwhelming approved of a measure forbidding the city’s transit agency from building any rail transit lines without voter approval. While that seems like a no brainer, opponents contended that it was unfair to single out rail transit for such a measure just because rail cost 50 to 100 times as much as bus transit.
Meanwhile, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is still trying to decide whether to cancel the $2.5 billion Purple Line (not to mention Baltimore’s $3 billion Red Line). Rail supporters were disappointed that he cut tolls on bridges and toll roads, since they figured that any surplus tolls should have gone to their pet project.
Rail supporters are claiming that the evil Cato Institute is leading a major campaign to undermine their plans. In fact, with the exception of the Antiplanner and maybe one other person, no one at Cato has put much thought into the Purple Line, as they are working on such relatively trivial things as reducing conflict in the Mideast, improving health care, and keeping government from watching everything we do.
Under fire from Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker for “unacceptable” interruptions in transit service, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s general manager, Beverly Scott, has resigned from her post. The immediate cause of those service interruptions, of course, was Boston’s record fall of more than six feet of snow in the past two weeks alone.
The underlying cause of those interruptions, however, is the aging and decrepit nature of the transit system. Burdened by $5 billion in debt that demands $422 million in mortgage payments a year–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget that ought to be going to maintain and rehabilitate the system–the T was simply ready to fail.
This failure can’t truly be blamed on general manager Scott, who has worked in Boston for little more than two years and before that was working for Atlanta’s transit system. Indeed, the blame belongs to politicians who agreed to borrow money to build rail transit extensions. Indeed, some of the blame could be put on Governor Baker himself, who helped develop the finance plan for Boston’s Big Dig.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) has a problem. It has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and must spend $470 million a year just to keep that backlog from growing. It has all kinds of wonderful plans to close that backlog, but those plans are all in the future. In the meantime, its latest budget proposal spares less than $100 million for maintenance.
So suppose someone offered the T a billion dollars. Heck, suppose someone offered it $2 billion. What percent of this money do you think the T would spend on maintenance?
Score a point if you guessed zero, for MBTA is currently spending $2 billion–half from the state and half from the feds–building a 4.3 mile extension of its Green light-rail line from Cambridge to Medford. When completed, this line is projected to increase the T’s total ridership by 7,000 “new” transit trips per day. Since the T currently carries about 1.4 million trips per weekday, the extension will increase ridership by 0.5 percent.
What gives transit riders such an incredible sense of entitlement? The state of Massachusetts has to close a $175 million budget gap. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) is still suffering from a huge maintenance shortfall. Yet Boston transit riders think they should get 24-hour transit service, no matter what the cost or how few people use it.
An experiment with late-night transit service–running certain buses and trains until 2:30 am instead of just 1:00 am–has attracted an average of just 17,000 riders per day, or less than 12,000 per hour, at an annual cost of $13 million. For comparison, before the experiment began, the T carried nearly 1.4 million riders per weekday, or close to 700,000 per hour for the 20 hours the system had been open. Plus, at least some of those 17,000 riders would have used the T anyway, just at an earlier hour.
Transit advocates say longer hours are needed to “retain talented young professionals and tech workers while boosting night life at the same time.” But when the T asked the “corporations that could ultimately benefit from the service by retaining young talent” to contribute to late-night operating costs, they got less than 7 percent of the cost of extending service hours.
One of the intriguing things about rail transit is how much more the CEOs of rail transit agencies get paid than those of bus-only agencies. Yet that high pay comes with a high risk of failure and disgrace, as it is much more difficult to build and run rail lines than to simply manage bus service.
Case in point: Dan Grabauskas, CEO of Honolulu’s “rapid transit authority” and the highest-paid city official in Honolulu. What did Grabauskas do to merit this position?
It turns out that his main qualification is having helped run the Boston rail system into its present deteriorated condition. In 2009, Grabauskas resigned from that position in disgrace. Some claim he was forced out by a Democratic governor for the sin of being appointed by the previous Republican governor, yet there is no doubt that Boston’s rail lines were in terrible shape, with frequent delays, at least two recent crashes (including one blamed on rusty signal wires that killed a train operator), and miserable customer service.
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.