So the MBTA Is a Basket Case. Do You Want to Pay More to Fix It?

Friday, July 29, 2011

As a daily rider on the MBTA, I did not need this week's testimony by T General Manager Richard Davey to convince me I am playing Russian roulette every time I step onto the Orange Line.

"Seventy-two percent of the Red Line cars, built in 1969, and all of the Orange Line cars, built between 1974 and 1981, need replacement now, at a cost in excess of $1 billion," Davey told the legislature's Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets as it conducted an oversight hearing Wednesday at the Massachusetts State House.

No one, to my knowledge, gave Davey an argument on this or any other distressing point in his presentation. No one said those rusty, beat-up, breakdown-prone T passenger cars are fine, just fine, and will last another 20 or 30 years, no problem. No one countered Davey's assertion that "constant attention and significant capital dollars" are needed to maintain the reliability and safety of the system, parts of which date to 1897. No one accused him of exaggerating when he said the T has a backlog of "critically needed" state-of-good-repair projects totaling approximately $4.5 billion.

No, everyone basically agrees the T is a financial basket case and something ought to be done about it.

But beyond saying that Uncle Sam should send more federal transportation dollars to Boston, no one agrees what that "something" should be, and when anyone even suggests that our state government should create a new revenue source (tax) for the T, the bullets start flying their way. Immediately.

The same thing happens when anyone says a new revenue source is needed to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, neglected by the state for years because the Big Dig was sucking up every available dollar.

(No one has yet dared to state the obvious: that the state will have spend ridiculous amounts to keep the leaky Tip O'Neill tunnel safe -- or else turn it into a huge water-ride-in-the-dark. Check out recent articles about falling light fixtures.)

"Without a discrete source of pay-as-you-go capital funds, the MBTA will likely be unable to invest the required capital funding, resulting in an increased backlog of state of good repair needs and unacceptable deterioration of the infrastucture critical to providing reliable and frequent service," Davey testified Wednesday

It's pretty clear that the people of Massachusetts don't want to raise the state gasoline tax or impose a vehicle-miles-traveled tax on car owners to bail out the T, repair more roads and bridges than we're already repairing on a yearly basis, or plug those torrents that are undermining the new tunnel that did so much to improve traffic flow and beautify the Hub of New England.

When we finally get beyond The Great Recession hangover, maybe they will grudgingly accept something like that -- and maybe the feds will be able to send us boatloads of new transportation dollars.

Until then, however, something shocking and scary would probably have to happen on the T before the legislature would impose a new transportation tax -- like an ancient, metal-fatigued car falling off the high tracks between Sullivan Square and Community College during the morning rush hour, and taking the rest of the train with it.

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