With a scathing report from federal safety investigators now in hand, where does the MBTA – and the business community – go from here?
First, no one should be worried that the agency won’t have a plan to address the many safety problems called out by the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA and T officials have already taken swift steps to create action plans to put remedies in place and begin rebuilding the agency’s workforce and safety systems and culture.
Instead, the business community must focus on making sure the T has the resources it needs to engage in this work while still providing fast, frequent and reliable service and pushing ahead on expansions and upgrades that we need to hit our climate and housing goals with policies like the MBTA Communities zoning reforms. In short, the T must walk and chew gum at the same time.
This is no longer “Mr. Bulger’s Transit Agency”; additional resources won’t be good money after bad. This is a modern transit service staffed by competent professionals seriously concerned with safety, but who are being asked to do too much with too little by top agency executives, a board of directors and a governor with misplaced, austerity-minded priorities and a focus on ribbon-cuttings, as the FTA report makes clear.
Operations staff were asked to also work on capital projects because senior leadership wouldn’t or couldn’t hire additional people in years past. The day-to-day operations workforce – the same crews that operate and keep trains and tracks safe – bore the brunt of budget cuts from 2015 to 2019. The Baker administration froze hiring at the T and continued to hold the line on operations spending even after the immediate COVID-19 fiscal crisis was past, and topped that off by transferring a huge sum of money – $500 million – from the operations budget to capital projects.
The result has been an agency short up to 1,500 to 2,000 staff, by the FTA’s estimation. A mix of new revenues – things like fees on non-residential parking spaces, new highway tolls or an increased sales tax – will be needed to pay for these workers.
But decisions around new resources will be tough and can’t take place under the Baker administration’s preferred policy of “trust us” – not when it’s so clear that trust has been misplaced.
The governor must quickly make public a detailed plan, including a timeline and resources the T needs to comply with FTA directives and return the agency to a state of good repair, and the business community must press him for this. On top of the T’s centrality to Massachusetts’ future, billions of dollars in real estate values and economic activity rely on the T to function correctly.
It is no time for senioritis. Failure to move with alacrity in building public and legislative support for the resources needed to fix the T will let this political moment slip away, keeping the T stuck in crisis mode for years to come.
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