Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sunday's Boston Globe "Starts and Stops" Column Focuses on Massachusetts' Transportation Woes

The lead article in the "Starts and Stops" column in today's Boston Sunday Globe hones in on how all of the state's transportation entities are running out of money. This version of "Starts and Stops" appeared in the Sunday Globe that is delivered to Central Massachusetts.

Here is the piece about transportation in Massachusetts in its entirety:

Transportation running on empty
Noah Bierman
March 2, 2008

Several astute readers have noticed a trend in articles about the state's roads, bridges, subways, trains, and buses. Everybody who runs them says they are out of money.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, despite a fare increase, is "broke" and running another deficit. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, despite toll increases and new efforts to clean house, is spending rainy-day money on basic operating expenses and has long-term financial problems that will prevent workers from making major repairs on roads and bridges.

The federal government held up $1 billion in matching money for transportation projects statewide in December, because Massachusetts did not set aside enough of its own cash to fix its crumbling bridges.

Everyone is hoping these financial pressures will not mean more toll increases and higher T fares, but the threat is chasing us all like a state trooper hopped up on Starbucks.

None of this should surprise state leaders, who had a report delivered to them Sept. 17, outlining problems and potentially painful solutions to the $19 billion in transportation needs forecast for the next two decades. The authors, a group of politically connected poobahs appointed by the Legislature, walked away wondering why they were not sparking much discussion.

Governor Deval Patrick has said little about the report, except that he wants to find savings before raising taxes. He has spent months quietly test-marketing a plan called MassTrans, which would merge some of the state's transportation bureaucracies, eliminating the Turnpike Authority, in hopes of greater efficiency. He has said money from casinos, if approved, could mitigate some of the transportation woes. The authors of the Transportation Finance Commission report have said these steps alone will not solve the problem.

When a Patrick official raised the specter of imposing tolls on Interstate 93 last month, he was quickly disowned by higher-ups in the administration. Taxes, tolls, and fare increases are the third rail of politics. If only the T could afford to power the real third rail.

Many lawmakers were expecting to see details of the governor's MassTrans plan at the beginning of February. That would at least start the dialogue. But the plan has not been released and the clock is ticking toward what could be more toll increases next year. Patrick told reporters last week that he was not close to completing the plan, according to State House News Service.

"The administration is fully aware of the challenges facing our roads and bridges after 16 years of neglect," Mac Daniel, a state transportation spokesman, said in a statement. "We are currently working on a long-term transportation reform plan for the Commonwealth. In the interim, the swift passage of the Transportation Bond Bill will help us to resolve immediate critical improvements needed on our roads, bridges, and rails."

The bond bill is a $2.9 billion wish list, passed by a legislative committee last week. It's only the first step.

This is the first I've heard about the MassTrans plan. Train Rider and I will need to keep our eyes open for more information about this.

As a resident of this state, it is rather disconcerting that the Governor is not advocating that more attention be placed on transportation in Massachusetts. Just driving around, I've noticed more roads in need of attention beyond the annual pothole episodes that occur this time every year. And it seems to take years to fix a bridge.

It is also disappointing that the Governor is waiting for the casinos to fix financial woes. The situation is a lot more serious than just waiting for magical money to appear.

But my criticism is not directed at the Governor alone. Why aren't our elected officials - representing our towns at both the state and local levels, not doing more to raise the issue about our transportation deficiencies? We need to pay more attention to ensuring we have a stable infrastructure.

Mass transportation and public road works may not be as emotional to report on as school funding and tax issues that impact the elderly, but we are just playing with time if we continue to ignore this issue. We need a sound mass transportation system to encourage more commuters to leave their cars parked closer to home. And drivers deserve the opportunity to drive along roads that are safe and well maintained. Maintaining mass transportation and roads takes money, but we've all seen examples of how much more it costs to delay proper maintenance.

In the Northwest version of "Starts and Stops" a commuter on the Lowell line wrote in to complain about slow reimbursement from the MBTA for on-time performance guarantee delays. The same article contained some "kudos" given to the T by Worcester-Framingham commuter rail riders because of the new WiFi system.

It is interesting that the "Starts and Stops" column doesn't provide a wrap-up of the on-time performance stats for the commuter rail lines for February 2008. I wonder how long it takes the MBTA/MBCR to analyze the data?

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