By: State Senator Steven Baddour
When I was the Senate Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, I helped coin the phrase “reform before revenue” to describe an approach to transportation reform that sought to ensure that tax- and toll-payer money was being spent efficiently and effectively so that the Legislature didn’t pump new funding into a broken system.
By steadfastly standing by this ideal, the Legislature was able to advance an agenda that sought to ensure that we weren’t leaving scare resources on the table because of inefficiencies and poor planning. With my help, it allowed us to finally take on entrenched ideas in the transportation arena – particularly at the MBTA whose overly generous benefits enjoyed protected status for decades. As the main author of three major transportation reform bills, I lead the effort to eliminate the MBTA’s infamous “twenty years of service and out” retirement clauses, cracked down on their health care allowances which permitted retirees and others to receive lifetime healthcare virtually free and required their health plans to align with those of the state’s Group Insurance Commission. The costs of providing these grandfathered benefits was and remains a near billion dollar financial burden on the operating costs of the T and I strongly believe that curtailing these benefits was imperative.
This Fall, the MBTA announced that in order to close its $161 million budget gap for FY13 it needs to adopt draconian methods to balance the books. They informed the public that they could either raise fares 43% and cut several bus routes, ferry service and commuter rail schedules or raise fares 35% and undertake severe schedule reductions for transit services including the elimination of all weekend and evening commuter rail service and some Green Line services. The idea of undertaking such cuts has caused some legislators, businesses, riders and commuters to call for the Legislature to step in and pay for the budget gap by raising the gas tax, draining the Commonwealth’s rainy day fund, and/or create new taxes and fees – to name a few.
Although it seems counterintuitive, these are the easy solutions. It would be “easy” for the Legislature to throw its hands up and say “well, they need the money”, raise the gas tax and carry on. But doing so ignores the fundamental issue that this new money will still be poured into broken system. The MBTA must do more to fix itself before it asks for additional funding. In my view, the MBTA should perform a top to bottom review of how they provide mass transit services and determine whether there areas from which it could wring additional savings. For example, last month the state Inspector General estimated that $60 million could be saved if the T redesigned its RIDE service, which provides transportation to the disabled. The program is a “budget buster” and should be carefully re-examined. I encourage the MBTA to explore innovative public private partnerships to decide whether private industry can deliver select services more efficiently. MassDOT has done a great job initiating these efforts in its Highway Division and I believe that they can replicate these successes at the T. I also believe that the MBTA should halt expansion efforts until it has a plan to fund its current state of good repair. We simply cannot expand and add more debt to a system that is already struggling to keep up with short- and long-term maintenance.
Let me be clear – I believe in commuter rail services and public transit. I believe it is the backbone of a strong economy, a vital part of our business and educational community and a key component of environmental policy. MassDOT has shown its willingness to think outside the box in the way it delivers road and bridge projects and now they must show the same when it comes to operating and maintaining its transit services. If they do so, our public transportation system will remain strong and vibrant tomorrow and for years to come.