First, the good news about the Massachusetts Bay Tragic Authority.
“The adults are finally in charge,” says Brian Kane, executive director of the watchdog MBTA Advisory Board, of General Manager Phil Eng’s six-month tenure. “I am starting to see things that I just haven’t seen in the last decade. He has brought in serious experts…to run things. He has completely reshuffled the leadership team. He is putting the right people in place, and I believe he is beginning to allocate resources appropriately to those people.”
Now, the bad news.
Fresh revelations of incompetent construction and management of the Green Line Extension has added a fresh cord of kiln-dried wood to the bonfire incinerating rider confidence in the safety and functionality of the system and, accordingly, their willingness to use it. The latest evidence – news that even waiving fares on the Blue Line this summer while the Sumner Tunnel was closed didn’t produce the lasting surge in ridership T officials were expecting. “Cost is really not the main motivator for people taking public transportation,” observes Kane. “All the research across the US in the last 30 years has showed us people need it to be safe, reliable and frequent.”
All things the T is not. And if you weren’t already agonizing over the myriad problems fueled by the T’s chronic failure, it’s time to start. Access to affordable housing…getting the workforce to the workplace…relieving our hideous traffic issues by getting cars off the road…resurrecting downtown ghost towns…just a few of the crucial economic and social goals that are not achievable without a decent public transit system.
And even with an adult finally in charge, serious change promises to be painfully slow in coming. Badly-needed reform of the state’s safety oversight system is getting the hurry-up-and-wait treatment in the Legislature. That automated-fare technology that was supposed to be speeding up our commutes years ago? Hurry up and wait. But at least the new Orange Line cars are up, running and…oh wait, that’s another train wreck, no pun intended.
Big Daddy Eng is locked up for five years with an option for a sixth. Surely that’s enough time to clean up the MBTA mess? “Unfortunately, maybe not,” says Kane.
But it is long enough for the current federal aid influx to run dry, for rising demands on the budget to eat away at the state’s financial support, and for all those millionaires being hit with income and real-estate transfer-tax hikes to figure out their tax-avoidance and/or exodus from Massachusetts strategies. Which raises the eternal question (besides the Tower of Power’s essential query: “What is Hip?) originally posed by Kool and the Gang: who’s gonna take the weight?
“Everyone at the T understands that if they raise fares, people will just not accept that at this time,” says Kane. “I know the people that I talk to in cities and towns every day have no interest in supporting a fare increase.” Meanwhile, T management booted their recent chance to crack down on pension liability, is shelling out big-time for new hires in a desperate attempt to staff up, and the system is already $230 million in the red.
And Kane’s conclusion is enough to make even an adult cry. “I don’t know how we’re going to pay for this, I really have no idea. But I do know that it has to be paid for.”