A bevy of problems at the MBTA have landed the agency in an unpleasant national spotlight, and fixing them will require both an injection of sustained funding and structural changes to its oversight system, former and current public officials said Tuesday.
The route to improvement for the MBTA is an intimidating one. While the T's myriad failures draw intense criticism every day, riders are clamoring for more reliable and faster service, elected officials want free trips for some passengers, and underserved areas are pushing for expanded train and bus routes.
Ridership still lags below pre-pandemic levels, so MBTA officials need to find a way to pay for those investments using a smaller base of fare revenue while they careen toward the edge of a budgetary cliff. At the same time, the workforce isn't large enough -- by the Federal Transit Administration's estimate, the T needs as many as 2,000 more employees just to maintain its current level of activity -- but hiring has proven difficult across both the public and private sectors.
And to top it off, the upper echelons of the agency's management will either report to a new administration in less than three months or be replaced by the next governor.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
"We're going to have some hard stuff to do with respect to transportation," Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said Tuesday.
Driscoll kicked off a series of panel discussions hosted by the MBTA Advisory Board probing how the agency got to a crisis point and what path it could take moving forward.
For several of the panelists, one common factor looms beneath many of the MBTA's current problems: money.
Before COVID-19 hit, the T's expenses were growing faster than its revenues, and the pandemic's rewiring of travel patterns has only exacerbated the financial strain, leading to forecasts that the MBTA will face a budget gap of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars as soon as next year.
Fred Salvucci, who spent a total of 12 years as transportation secretary under Democrat Gov. Michael Dukakis, called inadequate dedicated funding the "central problem at the MBTA."
"The organization has not had enough money to properly maintain its assets, and if that's not fixed, it doesn't matter what board structure or general manager you put," Salvucci said. "If there's not enough money to basically maintain what you have and provide decent service, you cannot succeed. That has to get fixed."
Steering more money to the T could address the safety issues that prompted a rare and blistering federal investigation, Salvucci said. He argued that many service headaches snowball into safety problems, such as long waits between trains leading to dangerously overcrowded platforms.
Sign up for our Breaking newsletter to get the most urgent news stories in your inbox.
In 2000, the Legislature enacted a policy steering 20 percent of the state's sales tax revenues as dedicated funding for the MBTA. The policy remained in place when the Legislature raised the sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent about a decade later, so the T now received about 16 percent of total sales tax revenues, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.
At the time lawmakers implemented the new funding structure, the annual sales tax haul had increased between 5 and 7 percent per year, which led officials to believe "there was ample revenue source to supply the T with the needed revenues," said MTF Vice President for Policy and Research Andrew Bagley.
That forecast did not hold true. Bagley said Tuesday that in the decade following the implementation of that funding model, sales tax revenues grew at about 1 percent every year, meaning the T "did not get anywhere near the amount of money" once anticipated.
"What has transpired since the Fiscal and Management Control Board are enormous amounts of really important substantive changes, but that funding structure remains in place," Bagley said, referring to the now-dissolved MBTA management panel implemented in the wake of the disastrous winter of 2015.
Transportation Funding Debate Could Resurface Next Year
Lawmakers appeared on track to revisit the topic of consistent MBTA funding in early 2020, when the House approved a package of tax and fee hikes that Democrats estimated would have generated hundreds of millions of dollars per year for transportation needs. However, the bill died in the Senate without a vote, and the Legislature since that time has not shown interest in revisiting the topic of recurring MBTA funding.
While a funding debate two years ago might have led to a different reality today, Transportation Committee Co-chair Sen. Brendan Crighton on Tuesday defended the decision his chamber's Democrat leadership made to spike that House-approved bill after the pandemic began, saying it "really was not appropriate for the Senate to dive into long-term revenue discussions at a time when we didn't know what we were facing."
"It's fair to say now that we have to have this conversation," Crighton said.
The Lynn Democrat stopped short of embracing any specific action by the Legislature, and he said the MBTA should not turn to fare hikes to try and claw into its projected deficit.
MBTA officials last raised fares in 2019, when they rolled out a package of price changes that averaged about a 5.8 increase, including a 15-cent hike for a single subway ride. State law prohibits the T from increasing fares more than once every two years and from raising any fare more than 7 percent.
"If we're going to build ridership and build a transportation system that works for all of us, we can't continue to hike fares," Crighton said. "I hate to say I'm excited to have the hard conversation, but we need to have this conversation in the upcoming session, both around -- God willing -- if the fair share amendment passes and there is revenue coming there, but also longer-term, dedicated revenues not only to the MBTA but to any of our public transit agencies."
Voters will decide the fate of the proposed constitutional amendment Crighton referenced, a surtax on household income above $1 million that analysts say could produce $1.3 billion per year for education and transportation investments.
While that measure will be decided at the ballot box, lawmakers have historically been hesitant to pursue tax changes related to transportation investments.
Get updates on what's happening in Massachusetts to your inbox. Sign up for our News Headlines newsletter.
Chris Dempsey, who previously served as director of the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy group, said the Legislature has increased the gas tax a total of 3 cents since 1991.
"That amounts to 14 percent in 31 years. In the same period of time, we have raised MBTA commuter rail fares 250 percent," he said. "So the message we have sent to the people of Massachusetts over the last 30 years is: drive more, take transit less. People have responded to that message."
The Legislature in 2013 paired a 3 cent-per-gallon increase to the gas tax with an index that would automatically link it to inflation, but voters later repealed the index at the ballot box.
Although calls for new permanent revenue streams or MBTA debt relief have not gained traction, Gov. Charlie Baker and top Democrats on Beacon Hill, under pressure to address MBTA safety problems, have in recent months made massive pots of one-time funding available to the MBTA to make fixes ordered by the FTA. The Legislature has already authorized $666 million for those needs, with more potentially coming in a tied-up closeout budget, adding to $580 million that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said will flow to the T for "modernization and safety improvements" under a federal infrastructure law.
While she called the MBTA's dilapidated state and oversight shortcomings by the Department of Public Utilities "a dangerous situation that has been allowed to fester for far too long," Warren said last week that money alone will not solve the T's woes.
"We can't just buy our way out of these problems and wish our way to a T that works," Warren said. "We need the right leadership in place at the MBTA and DPU so that we can have a functioning T that riders throughout the region can depend on."
Warren convened a hearing Friday to examine the T, where she aimed scalding criticism at MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak and DPU Chair Matt Nelson.
"I heard you say safety is our top priority. But here's what the investigation from the FTA found -- I quote -- 'MBTA's executive management' -- that's you -- 'does not consistently ensure its decisions related to safety risks are based on safety data, or documented facts,' " Warren said to Poftak at the hearing, according to a transcript her office provided. "I nearly fell over when I read that. That is the bureaucratic way to say that your safety decisions are just made up."
Who Should Oversee the T?
Another thread with which lawmakers continue to grapple is the role of state-level MBTA safety oversight.
The DPU serves as the agency responsible for that job, but the FTA blasted the executive branch office for falling short of its duties even after an audit conducted in 2019 identified many of those problems.
Like the T, staffing has posed a problem for the DPU, where officials are struggling to attract enough workers with the transit system expertise necessary for safety oversight.
"You're not going to be able to pay normal state wages to attract the kind of technical expertise, who know what they're looking at on the ground, who can read a safety plan, who can read a capital improvement plan or a maintenance plan and say, 'Yeah, they're getting it right,'" said former FMCB chair Joseph Aiello. "You're really going to need to pay people to get the right people and keep them there so they can be effective."
Some speakers at Tuesday's panel event suggested the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent group representing cities and towns that help fund the T, could be a better fit for safety oversight duties.
Aiello led the former MBTA board in 2019, when the Baker administration tapped an independent panel of experts including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to explore the T's safety problems.
"The safety function within the DPU is just a lost child. When we did the LaHood-chaired safety panel, they were completely nonresponsive. Then you get this horrible report that came out, and two years later, the FTA finds that the DPU is still (in) the same passive mode and not fulfilling the function the FTA has asked them to fill," he said. "Something has got to be changed."