Former MBTA manager calls for coordinated transit planning
The massive snow drifts that shut Boston down are long gone, but former MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott’s passion for the state’s public transit system seems no less apparent than it was during the Feb. 10 press conference when she delivered an animated defense of the public transit workers and the system that ground to a halt under the crushing weight of the winter storms.
To some, the MBTA’s system failure exposed the effects of decades of delayed maintenance that have forced MBTA workers to make do with 40-year-old rail cars that lack replacement parts. Others saw the MBTA’s breakdown as symptomatic of ineffective management.
Scott, however, sees the episode as an opportunity for a deeper conversation in Massachusetts about the state’s transit needs.
“I really hope that what comes out of this unprecedented winter event would not be a race to blame,” she said in an interview with the Banner. “The one thing that’s clear is that this capital city, this region and this commonwealth won’t work without the T.”
That fact was driven home, as many commuters were forced to stay home, crippling and shutting down businesses throughout the region. Other lessons emerged from reports that have come out in the aftermath of the T failure. The agency lacks a budget for preventative maintenance, and has no functioning diesel-powered snow removal cars, according to a report Scott commissioned from the American Public Transportation Association.
A need for planning
Scott says that beyond the analysis of what went wrong and proposed fixes for the agency, the MBTA needs to be part of a comprehensive plan that includes all of the state’s transportation agencies and modalities, including airports, highways, water shuttles and pedestrian walkways.
“What’s missing is a true vision and coherent plan, backed up by committed people,” she said. “That is different from a list of projects. A vision must be backed up by coherent and accountable plans. If our vision is to be mediocre, if our vision is to keep saying we’re the oldest in the nation, if our vision is to keep going along to get along, we’re not going to have an excellent transit system.”
Former Gov. Deval Patrick took steps to modernize the state’s administration of its transportation infrastructure, consolidating the administrations of public transit, aeronautics, highway and the Registry of Motor Vehicles into one agency, a move Scott says was a step in the right direction.
“We in public transportation have been way too siloed,” she said. “We’re all trying to do the same thing – support the state in moving people, goods and services.”
Under MassDOT, the state’s transportation entities share staff and services, including legal, marketing and personnel.
The consolidation was a step in the right direction, says Eric Bourassa, director of the Transportation Division at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
“The MassDOT consolidation has brought the T under the direct oversight of the Governor and enabled better coordination between the T and MassDOT planners,” Bourassa said in a statement emailed to the Banner. “Consolidating or coordinating the short- and long-term capital planning would be an improvement. Overall, the T needs substantially more investment to its state of good repair program and basic maintenance of the system. These funds will have to come from outside the money currently available to the T, likely in the form of additional state resources.”
In spite of the gains made by consolidation, Scott cautions that the MBTA has been hampered by what she says is organizational instability that has resulted in the agency fielding four general managers over the last 10 years.
“The public has a lack of confidence in government,” she said. “If you have secretaries changing and boards changing, public confidence will suffer. Everybody wants accountability, but if you’re constantly changing the script, you can’t evaluate the effectiveness of what you’re doing.”
Paying for progress
While there has been extensive analysis of what has gone wrong at the MBTA, there has been little conversation about how to pay for the needed repairs.
“You have to have more than the T’s needs on the table,” Scott says. “You have to consider what it’s going to require to fix things and how we’re going to pay for it. It’s a fact that we have serious disinvestment in the system. You can debate whether it’s $4 billion or $9 billion, but the fact remains we have to plan to pay for it.”
Scott also says the MBTA could think differently about how it raises revenue. Under one scenario that has worked with other transit agencies, the state could quantify the value MBTA service adds to businesses, nonprofits, housing developments, office parks and other developments, then assess a fee. The city of Atlanta has funded its streetcar line with fees charged to the downtown business district.
The MBTA has the added advantage of substantial land holdings.
“The MBTA is the second-largest property owner in the commonwealth,” she said. “There are ways to capture revenue from that.
The key to improving public transit in Massachusetts is to make it part of a broader conversation, Scott said.
“We want to reduce greenhouse gasses. We want to cut vehicle traffic. You have to line up housing, transportation and everything if you want to have those outcomes. That’s the kind of bigger thinking that a transportation system can’t do on its own.”
The problem of disinvestment at the MBTA is symptomatic of a broader trend in public infrastructure not just in Massachusetts, but across the country. In the decades since the U.S. built the interstate highway system, public investment in transportation has plummeted to about half the rate of investment in European Union countries, according to an analysis of International Monetary Fund data conducted by the Economist magazine last year.
“We’re batting a D+,” Scot says. “We have to invest to remain competitive. We have to do it. We can’t rest on the laurels of the past.”
While Scott remains passionate about the public transportation, she plans to work on the human side of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. She is launching a nonprofit organization aimed at training high school and college students for jobs in the nation’s transportation and energy infrastructure.
“The skills you need as a lineman or worker in the electrical grid are the same as you need running the signal system at the MBTA,” she said. “You can’t just pick people off the streets for these jobs.”
Scott pointed out that with a third of the MBTA’s workforce eligible for retirement in the next five years, the agency will need to replace a substantial segment of its workforce.
“We don’t have a plan for who’s going to take their place,” Scott said.
To remedy the situation, she plans to develop curricula for students in vocational high schools, community and four-year colleges. Her nonprofit will be called Introducing Youth to American Infrastructure Plus. Once it is incorporated a pilot project will follow.