Wednesday, November 4, 2009

MBTA Riders At Risk

According to a report released by the governor's office, a decade of neglect and mounting financial problems has left the MBTA with public safety issues that are far more serious than previously revealed and swiftly growing worse. This report was obtained by the Globe yesterday. Among the most alarming items in the report is the fact that the MBTA has left more than 50 critically important safety projects unfunded because of a “mountain of red ink.’’

One delayed project highlighted in the report, which has been deemed critical to public safety, involves repair of a water leak on the Red Line between Alewife and Harvard stations. The $80 million project would replace a system of slabs and disks, designed to absorb train vibrations, that has been damaged by water leaks. In some areas, fasteners are corroding and the tracks are moving out of alignment, the report states, presenting “the possibility of train derailment.’’The system’s age and the lack of consistent repairs has also had a direct impact on service, according to the report.

A recent fire triggered by an old cable buried under muck on the Red Line shut down rush-hour service. It also forced some bus drivers to ferry those Red Line passengers, leaving parts of their regular routes uncovered and causing inconvenience across the system. The publicity forced the MBTA to agree to replace the cable, a $140 million project, “money that will be diverted from other projects such as overhauling vehicles,’’ the report states.

The 51 deferred projects deemed critically important carry a price tag of $543 million. But the T has a total of more than $3 billion in unfunded maintenance projects it considers necessary to keep the system operating smoothly, a list that is growing as trains and buses stay in service beyond their projected life and without crucial overhauls, according to the report.The agency spends $470 million a year on maintenance, but would need an additional $224 million to keep its backlog from growing, the report said.

“It’s fair to say that they are not keeping up with the safety standards that they themselves subscribe to,’’ said David F. D’Alessandro, the former John Hancock chairman who led the review. Governor Patrick and D'Alessandro will officially release the report today.

And although Dan Grabauskas was ousted this past summer, the report itself is not critical of MBTA management. Instead, it places most of the blame on a change in the way the MBTA was funded, a change approved by the Legislature in 2000. The idea at the time was to give the T a fixed annual subsidy, abandoning the unwieldy practice of using state money to pay off MBTA expenses at the end of each year. But the state underestimated the agency’s expenses by $558 million between 2000 and 2008, because of unrealistic projections for operating costs that were outside the T’s control.

For example, the original plan left no money for workers’ health care cost increases, even though they grew by 73 percent in the first eight years. The T, the state’s largest electricity customer, saw fuel and utility costs more than double over the same period. To balance the books, managers deferred debt payments, masking the size of the T’s problems. By 2013, the agency’s annual debt payment will reach $525 million.

Despite the agency’s financial woes, D’Alessandro recommends against raising fares after three increases in the past decade. Before adding still further to the burden on passengers, he wrote, “the riding public deserves to have tangible evidence that the MBTA is improving safety and service, not deteriorating further.’’

D’Alessandro, a bluntly spoken former corporate executive, also recommends against further expansion until the T can get its safety and maintenance problems under control. Simply controlling costs, he said, is no solution, given the magnitude of the agency’s problems and the need to employ large numbers of people to run the system.

In general, D’Alessandro recommends more transparency and more direct oversight of the MBTA by the new state transportation board, including a requirement that the T seek approval before it borrows any more money.

The strongest recommendation concerns safety. D’Alessandro implores the T’s new oversight board to conduct a high-level examination of what needs fixing. “With 51 projects classified as ‘a danger to life or limb of passengers and/or employees,’ prioritizing these projects against public safety needs is imperative,’’ he wrote.

*** Update 1:15 PM 11/04/09 ***

Governor Patrick announced during a press conference today that there will be no fare increases on the MBTA for the foreseeable future until these issues are hammered out. Thankfully, someone finally gets it. Riders have been lamenting this for years ... that the experience that we have almost daily on the T does not warrant additional fees to us until the agency gets its crap together.

This report didn't really offer anything new for those of us who take the T or commuter rail ... but hopefully it will get the ball rolling on solutions.

1 comment:

AJ said...

WOW! Just wow! It took someone from the private sector to let the T know they should fix internal debt and safety issues before focusing on expansion????? Haven't riders been screaming about this for years? Something that should have been considered before the much publicized Greenbush expansion/failure?

It's nice that we finally have some new numbers and information, including some accountability (even though it just points back to the same people causing many of the state's other problems). It was incredibly refreshing to read Mr. D'Alessandro's comments. It's not fair to just keep taxing your ridership, especially when the agency has been so mismanaged. It's not fair to expand for political or PR reasons when you're secretly deferring repair money and putting other people lives directly in harm's way.

How did anyone think these were good ideas in the past? And it clearly wasn't just one person, it takes more the one person to get any of these things pushed through.