By Kristina Egan and Steve Smith
Kristina is director of transportation for Massachusetts. Steve Smith is executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District.
AMMassachusetts is the home of the first subway built in the United States. Once a national leader in transportation innovation, we are now home to the MBTA, which carries the largest debt burden among all public transportation authorities in the nation. MassDOT is also drowning in debt that hobbles the commonwealth’s roads and bridges and prevents investments in infrastructure critical to the state’s economy.
Our aging public transportation system is financially unable to keep up with the needs of our population and threatens the regional economy. In fiscal year 2012, 45 percent of the combined annual operating budgets of MassDOT and the MBTA will go solely to paying off debt, leading to a lack of funds for routine operations. The MBTA’s recent fare hike and service cuts would be mere Band-Aids on a much larger problem. The Transportation Finance Commission estimates that over the next 20 years, the cost just to maintain the state’s transportation system will exceed anticipated available resources by $15 billion to $19 billion.
A functioning transportation system is an essential economic asset that creates many quality-of-life benefits, like providing elderly residents with an easy and safe way to and from their homes. And improving our system goes beyond economic and social good. The transportation sector is the state’s largest and fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution, which is causing climate change.
In difficult financial times, the mantra that is often repeated is to do more with less. Unfortunately, transportation projects do not miraculously happen by doing more with less. They require commitments of real money. Many projects in Southeastern Massachusetts are in jeopardy of not being completed soon or ever without more funding to pay for them.
For example, South Coast Rail will provide access between the region and Boston, create 3,800 jobs, promote development in urban centers, relieve congestion on Routes 24 and 140, and improve air quality. But it cannot happen without new revenues. The MBTA is too saddled with existing debt to take on this project, and pretending otherwise will not make the problem go away.
Likewise, the so-called spaghetti ramps connecting Route 79 with the Braga Bridge in Fall River are being held in place with wooden beams and it will take as much as $170 million to fix them.
And improvements to our transportation network such as new intermodal terminals in Attleboro and New Bedford or creating a pedestrian and tourist-friendly boulevard along the Fall River waterfront all need action.
It’s tempting to blame our issues today solely on the Big Dig and general poor management, but the reality is more complex. Unable to raise funds to pay for transit expansions and maintenance, the state has long borrowed to pay for needed infrastructure, resulting in a crushing debt burden. One of the state’s largest sources of revenue for roads, bridges and other transportation systems is the gas tax, which has not been increased from 21 cents per gallon since 1991. With inflation, the real value of the tax is less than 13 cents.
The state must spend the sparse dollars it has more strategically, changing the way that decisions are made so that transportation investments align with the commonwealth’s broader social, economic and environmental needs.
Over the last year, Gov. Patrick called on lawmakers to begin the conversation about how we, as a commonwealth, will address this transit crisis. We agree that now is the time for that long overdue conversation.
March 23, 2012 12:00 AM