Massachusetts is arriving at a moment of truth for the MBTA: Will the political establishment shake off its torpor and take bold, aggressive steps to ensure its success in the face of a neglectful governor?
Transit is not a lifestyle choice for the millions of Bay Staters who rely on the T to get to work, school, shops and activities. It’s essential to living in a dense metro area, it’s key to the region’s wealth and it’s vital to preventing destructive climate change.
What depends on the T? Property values everywhere from Quincy to Medford. Restaurants, hotels and thousands of other businesses whose staff commute on the subway every day. The region’s future growth potential, as developers, businesses and homebuyers decide whether to move here or to places like Texas. Even the basic functioning of our roads, which would be choked to death if the 700,000-some people who take the MBTA every day drove instead.
Senate President Karen Spilka’s and House Speaker Ron Mariano’s impulse to blame Gov. Charlie Baker for the T’s safety failings last week is partly correct. The Baker administration has steadfastly refused to ask for more operating funding for the agency despite plenty of indications – most glaringly laid out in the 2019 LaHood safety report – that the T didn’t have enough cash devoted towards maintenance, hiring and training staff.
Faced with the need to expand MBTA services to keep up with a growing metropolis and fix decades of neglect while also keeping the existing system in running order, Baker’s appointees have repeatedly chosen to undercut the latter. His hand-picked MBTA Board of Directors even voted in January to move $500 million from the T’s operations budget – that pays for things like recruiting new control center staff and repairing broken tracks – to the capital projects budget. Why didn’t Baker ask legislators for the $500 million, instead, when transit advocates were repeatedly flagging many of the same maintenance issues and hiring shortfalls that alarmed federal investigators just a few months later?
But Spilka and Mariano are also willfully ignoring their branches’ role in this mess. The LaHood report laid out the agency’s safety problems in frightening detail, whose fixes they and the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation should have closely monitored. Why didn’t they apply both pressure and financial resources to make sure these fixes were implemented?
Since these problems were left to fester instead, the T is facing federal safety mandates that will sap resources from providing the level of service Greater Boston needs in order to keep running, and that the T needs in order to attract enough riders to maintain a healthy balance sheet. Given Baker’s complicity in the MBTA’s safety debacle, legislators must stop letting sleeping dogs lie and give T workers an infusion of operations money so they have the resources to hire staff and fix safety problems, in addition to the $400 million they recently offered for safety-related capital projects.
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