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Column: For the T, riders should come first

Excerpt from Jim Stergios’ column in The Boston Globe.  REVIEWS OF GOVERNOR Baker’s first year in office, capped off by General Electric’s decision to move its corporate headquarters to Boston, have been largely positive. A more important marker to evaluate his long-term performance began six months ago, when the Legislature passed significant MBTA reform. Read more in The Boston Globe…

GE comes to Boston: Here’s why

The Globe‘s Shirley Leung gets it right in her piece this afternoon on General Electric’s decision to relocate its headquarters to Boston: This is better than hosting the Olympics. No controversy over potential cost overruns, or whether taxpayers will be on the hook for billions of dollars. No worries about traffic on Southeast Expressway, or whether an aging T can handle throngs of visitors. No collective handwringing over whether the pain of throwing what amounts to a three-week party would be worth it all. General Electric moving its headquarters to Boston is all glory, giving us a chance to step onto a global stage on our own terms. The world can now mention Boston in the same sentence as Silicon […]

Rather than Cut The Ride’s Services, Change the Service Delivery Model

On December 14th, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) met to discuss how to rein in the agency’s spending and debated making changes to its paratransit system, The Ride. The FMCB faces a daunting task.  The MBTA is plagued with financial woes, including $5.5 billion in outstanding debt and $7 billion in deferred maintenance. That alone translates into $5,000 dollars per each of the commonwealth’s 2.5 million households. This is on top of the MBTA’s current budget shortfall of $170 million this year, annual operating losses, expensive collective bargaining agreements, and unexpected cost overruns with the Green Line Extension project.  The agency definitely needs to make some cuts. The FMCB has proposed a real innovation for MBTA paratransit: […]

West Virginia, Massachusetts and why the End Common Core ballot is going forward

When it comes to the “confidence game” that has been played around the country to advance Common Core standards, there are few places where connivance was more on display than in West Virginia.  As noted in a post in March of 2012, you had there “noted national standards boosters” including “former Governor Bob Wise, now of the Alliance for “Excellent” Education,  and Steven Paine, former state superintendent of schools for West Virginia, and CCSSO’s former Board President.”  West Virginia was also “ground zero of the agenda of “softy” 21st century skills and the home of Dane Linn, head of education policy for the National Governors Association (NGA), another leader of the push for national standards.”   Last I looked, in […]

What is the Lawn on D Costing Us?

Jon Chesto’s report in the Globe on Monday noted that the Lawn on D, an almost three-acre parcel immediately behind the South Boston Convention Center, is currently costing about $2.7 million to operate and generating about $424,000 in revenues, sponsorships, etc.  Both the operating costs and the revenues are up in 2015, from $2.1 million and $190,000, respectively, in 2014.  So the annual loss has also grown from 2014 to 2015, from about $1.9 million to around $2.3 million. There are many questions that should arise here.  Start with equity.  Should an authority be spending that much on programming at one park while other Boston’s neighborhoods compete for limited funds in a stressed City of Boston budget? Then there is […]

Op-Ed: Making ‘The Ride’ more cost-effective could help MBTA’s finances

Unseasonably warm November days have given way to increasing chill. Long-winded prescriptions for how to fix the MBTA will now give way to the immediacy of winter’s demands — and there are reasons to worry. Longer term, there’s also cause for optimism. One side of the ledger — recent delays, breakdowns and fires during a period of temperate weather — give us ample cause for worry. And heading into the frigid months, strained labor relations are never good. The opportunities for mischief are many. But so are the reasons to be hopeful. The Legislature’s willingness to bring what is essentially emergency management to the T is a sea change. The basic blocking and tackling that undergird the system like tracks, […]

Op-ed: Big money pushes PARCC and Common Core

Each year, much is written and said about K-12 education when students head back to school. That will be especially true this fall, as the education policy community eagerly awaits a decision by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education about whether to keep the MCAS tests, or switch to assessments developed by the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The decision will impact not only which test Massachusetts uses to assess student achievement, but also what is taught in Massachusetts public schools. PARCC is aligned with the controversial Common Core curriculum, with its emphasis on workplace readiness. MCAS, on the other hand, was aligned with Massachusetts’ own standards, which emphasized a liberal arts education and […]

The Boston Globe: Create work with on-the-job training

The value of work cannot be overstated. If you love what you’re doing — great. If you don’t, studies demonstrate that even mundane jobs carry broad psychic and material benefits. Work begets self-reliance and dignity. It provides resources to live, engage with society, and establish an identity. It stabilizes families. It makes social and economic mobility possible. Yet public policy often ignores the value of work, and discounts the harmful physical and mental impacts of the lack of work. Massachusetts’ just-passed increase in the earned income tax credit is a welcome exception: It will help people stay in the workplace, acquiring experience and skills, and, unlike a minimum wage hike, it won’t decrease the number of jobs available. Read the […]

COMMENTARY: More is needed to fix the MBTA

Read this op-ed in The Patriot Ledger, the Brockton Enterprise, the Fall River Herald News, the Taunton Gazette, the Salem News, the Gloucester Times, and The MetroWest Daily News. The budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Charlie Baker includes important new powers to reform the beleaguered MBTA, but ensuring an effective transit system will require additional common-sense policy changes in a pending transportation bill. The budget created the Fiscal and Management Control Board that Baker proposed and gave the MBTA a three-year exemption from the commonwealth’s anti-privatization law. These steps may improve service for 1.3 million transit riders, but they are insufficient for the momentous task ahead. That job requires that legislators protect current and retired transit employees’ pensions, eliminate union […]

Way off track

A couple of weeks ago, Ari Ofsevit wrote a pretty scathing blog claiming that Pioneer is really, really bad at math.  We take math and transparency seriously here at Pioneer, so after sharing my reply with Ari last week, I wanted to post it publicly. Ofsevit’s piece is remarkable, not for the quality and length of his ranting, but rather for the fact that he complains about math errors without ever identifying a single math error.  Along the way, he misrepresents lots of stuff.  Here is the hit parade: Ofsevit is wrong in attributing the absenteeism numbers in the governor’s special panel to Pioneer.  The Institute had nothing to do with the absenteeism numbers they cite (which in part, I would guess, […]

The Single Biggest Obstacle to Reform at the MBTA

post by Gregory W. Sullivan & Matthew Blackbourn In an article published in the Globe last week, the MBTA Carmen’s union threatened to block MBTA federal transit funding if the legislature enacts the governor’s proposal to give the proposed fiscal and management control board final say on collective bargaining agreements. We hope that the legislature sees this threat for what it is: bully tactics by MBTA unions against the house and senate. This isn’t the first time MBTA unions have used the nuclear option of attempting to shut off federal funding to block a legislative reform that endeavored to do nothing more than treat MBTA employees exactly the same way other public employees in the state are treated. In 2009, Local […]

The Convention Center Expansion was a House of Cards

In a piece by Jack Encarnacao in the Boston Herald, Richard Rogers, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council claimed that opponents of the South Boston Convention Center expansion were “ideological.”  He called out Pioneer for putting ideology “ahead of the best interests of our regional and state economy.” As I noted in the piece, Mr. Rogers is doing his job, seeking to advance the interests of his members.  But his are partial interests–and advancing the interests of the GBLC in this case harms the interest of hundreds of thousands of fellow Massachusetts residents. The fact is that the South Boston Convention Center expansion has always been a vanity project with no economic and financial data to back it up.  In the […]

A highly temporary solution on higher education

With my older daughter heading off to college next year, the question of how much debt is too much debt for her take on is something I’m mulling over quite a bit these days. How much can you pay, how much will she need to borrow and work, and how much support, if any, can the institution provide? US Senator Elizabeth Warren has been asking this question, and she is right to raise the issue, given the burden on, as she puts it, their later “economic lives”—buying a house, leasing a car, building some savings, investing, etc. So what of Senator Warren’s proposal to cut federal borrowing rates from 10 to 4 percent?  Her call to wipe out the federal […]

Why the free fall in support for the Olympics

Notwithstanding articles that pass the blame off on John Fish, then Doug Rubin’s Northwind Strategies, then everybody else on the local committee, the striking fall in support for the Olympics has little to do with any one person. It has to do with trust. While not for or against the Olympics at this point, I will admit that, as is the case with any big bold project, we believe it is important to remain skeptical early and to ask lots of questions.  That was true of the debate over the South Boston convention center in the 1990s, when we came out in opposition to the project, or more recently casinos, where we limited our work to questions surrounding the public trust […]

The MBTA Commuter Rail’s Cost Structure is Off the Rails

This report analyzes the MBTA’s commuter rail services compared to the commuter rail system the Integrated National Transit Database Analysis System (INTDAS) rated as most similar, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). SEPTA operates 13 branches to more than 150 stations in Philadelphia and
its suburbs. This brief contains five important findings.

How to measure the MBTA’s operational efficiency

Pioneer has long been interested in the efficiency of the MBTA relative to other systems around the country.  As noted in a blog response to an organization critical of our work, we are not interested in ideological playtime with numbers. The organization, called the Frontier Group, which is allied with advocates of continued MBTA expansion, notes that Pioneer should focus its operational and efficiency analyses on costs per “unlinked passenger trips.”  When we began our recent series on the MBTA we had a number of in-house discussions regarding what would and would not provide useful information on operational efficiency.   In transit speak and then in basic laymen’s terms, here is why “unlinked passenger trips” don’t tell us much about efficiency, […]

Suing to Lift the Charter School Cap

  Lawsuit – who is part of it – Michael Keating (Foley-Hoag), William F. Lee (WilmerHale), Paul F. Ware Jr. (Goodwin Procter).  Good on them for doing it.  Is it a civil rights issue?  You bet it is.  The long history of the Civil Rights movement runs right through the Brown v Board of Education decision 60 years ago.  Education has been a central battleground. Does that make bringing a lawsuit the wise course of action?  I admittedly have multiple (and not exactly aligned) views on the merits of legal action. All kids deserve access to great schools – and all parents deserve choices.  In a free society – supposedly, a society of merit – education is the variable that […]

A few thoughts on the new Boston school superintendent

Recently on Greater Boston, when asked his appraisal of the final candidates for Boston superintendent, former state education secretary Paul Reville sniffed that it was a weak lot.  I don’t often agree with Paul, given that under his leadership Massachusetts went from among the fastest improving states on the Nation’s Report Card to stagnant (and declining in early grade reading), the state ditched the US History MCAS graduation requirement, he and the commissioner politicized what was a pretty objective charter school approval process… I could go on but in the great Greek tradition of “let bygones be bygones,” I feel like after you get a few digs in, you must leave more for another day. Reville was right on the pool […]

Tocqueville on the threat of a mild despotism

Pioneer focuses on four policy issues that we believe are critical to making Massachusetts freer and more prosperous — a world-class education for all, accessible and affordable health care, government that can do big things but is not overweening, and a dynamic economy. That’s the mission, but the mission is informed by a deep belief in a republican form of democracy (both small r and small d) and a standard issue copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on the night table. Bedtime reading brought me to a passage in Volume II that is both powerful and worthy of reflection.  Not because of this or that individual law, but because of, if you will, the accumulation, the “network of small complicated rules, […]

Getting our priorities straight on the BCEC and the MBTA

Scot Lehigh and Shirley Leung in the Globe today both focused attention on the idea of, as Lehigh put it, “tak[ing] the $1 billion in bonding bandwidth it last year dedicated to expanding the Boston Convention Center & Exhibition Center and instead apply[ing] it to helping improve the MBTA.” The background here is that at the end of January, Gov. Charlie Baker put the brakes on a $1 billion bond offering approved last summer to pay for expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC).  The Governor ordered a two-month delay so his finance team could address emergency 2015 budget issues while simultaneously preparing the governor’s 2016 budget proposal. Pioneer had long called for state leaders not to move […]

Getting our priorities straight on the BCEC and the MBTA

Scot Lehigh and Shirley Leung in the Globe today both focused attention on the idea of, as Lehigh put it, “tak[ing] the $1 billion in bonding bandwidth it last year dedicated to expanding the Boston Convention Center & Exhibition Center and instead apply[ing] it to helping improve the MBTA.” The background here is that at the end of January, Gov. Charlie Baker put the brakes on a $1 billion bond offering approved last summer to pay for expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC).  The Governor ordered a two-month delay so his finance team could address emergency 2015 budget issues while simultaneously preparing the governor’s 2016 budget proposal. Pioneer had long called for state leaders not to move […]

A run through the budget jungle

There were some protesters outside the press conference where Baker discussed his FY2016 budget proposal this afternoon.  But the fact is there is not much to protest here. This budget is characterized by lots of programs level funded.  I understand that some advocates want much more funding for their specific program of interest, but the pain, to the extent that there is any, is spread across all areas of government.  And it is worth remembering that the budget is increasing by $1.1 billion dollars, or 3 percent, to $38 billion total. Notwithstanding that growth in the budget, the administration still needs some big moves to make revenues match up with spending.  Going into the budgeting process, the estimated shortfall in revenues […]

Massachusetts Experience with Hard and Soft Receiverships

Last week Pioneer Institute called for the MBTA to be placed in “soft receivership,” or what is often called a finance control board. The purposes of this policy brief are to consider Massachusetts’ experience with two recent receiverships, and to provide useful background for the new special commission established by Governor Charlie Baker to analyze the causes of the current situation at the MBTA and the reforms and governance changes needed to improve it.

Working from facts on the crisis at the MBTA

With all eyes on the MBTA, it is probably to be expected that dueling visions would emerge on a Thursday afternoon, just after the noon hour, as to what ails the T and how to fix the Authority.  That came in the form of a Public Statement from Pioneer and a report from the group Transportation for Massachusetts (MASSPIRG, Conservation Law Foundation). I had a chance to speak with Kirstie Pecci of MASSPIRG on WGBH’s Greater Boston  about the challenges faced by the T.  Good conversation, but a few clarifications would be helpful. The T is important to the Greater Boston area, but really services as an essential cog in the role of the Hub across Massachusetts and the region.  […]

What’s driving the state’s budget gap?

With 2015 revenues off by a sliver ($18 million), the state is facing a $750 million hole in the budget.  My friend at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Noah Berger, notes that tax cuts in the 1990s led to decreased state revenues on the order of $3 billion. I find his view unconvincing for a number of reasons, including the fact that those tax cuts were part of changing the brand and the reality of living and doing business in Massachusetts.  Notwithstanding my own view that taxes (and the regulatory costs of doing business) are too high in the state, it is really hard today to assail the state with the worn slur of Taxachusetts.  The change in brand and […]

A tax on accumulated wealth?

Pioneers tend to be people who read words carefully.  When the president speaks, we listen.  And in the State of the Union, there was one sentence that stuck out.  He said, “ Let’s close loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.” Does anyone have a clear sense what this means?  Clearly, what the president has in mind is not a change in taxes on earnings.  Is the implication that he is looking at end-of-life taxes?   That wouldn’t be likely given the political downsides during an upcoming election cycle.  Is it a new tax?  The president’s is one of those odd locutions that didn’t just land there by accident. […]

Arne Duncan, fiction writer

News flash for Washington watchers!  Now we know what Arne Duncan will do once his service as US Education Secretary comes to an end.  In the Boston Globe on Monday, he demonstrated a flair for fiction, with a panegyric to Gov. Patrick’s stewardship of education policy.  My reaction is posted here and at the Globe’s Podium section: Who says Common Core advocates don’t like fiction?  In his Globe opinion piece (Under Deval Patrick, Mass. has led the nation in education, January 5), US Education Secretary Arne Duncan got one fact right: Massachusetts leads the nation in education.  Attributing that progress to Gov. Patrick’s leadership is like suggesting that a pinch runner who finds himself on third base hit a triple. Massachusetts has led the […]

Thoughts on what everyone hates talking about (testing)

No one wants to talk about testing except the people that want to get rid of it.  Which leaves the field of debate on a critical aspect of education reform in pretty partial hands. Above all other states, Massachusetts should understand the important role of standardized testing. Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, chief architect of the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act (ERA) has noted that in 1992 the sole state-imposed graduation requirements were “one year of American history and four years of gym.  The “absence of a comprehensive statewide system of standards,” he continued, “imposed real hardships on poor and minority school districts” given “society’s low expectations as to what their kids could learn.” The ERA changed all that, leading to the development of […]