MBTA far from a “State of Good Repair”

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There’s an old joke in which the conductor happens upon the train engineer in the engine room. “What are you doing here?” they ask each other in surprise. The more important question is, of course, who is driving the train?

Boston and Massachusetts residents who rely on the “T” for transportation should be asking the same question. The MBTA has been running a deficit since 2001 when the state implemented a new funding system and strict orders to balance its checkbook at the end of each year. By 2010, the MBTA reported a deficit of $160M while logging $2.7 billion in backlogged maintenance costs. Every year the budgetary maestros of the MBTA receive a list of problems that need to be addressed and rank them on scale of 1-10 (1 being the least in need of attention and 10 the most critical, and including factors like safety, health, cost/benefit) to help decide which projects can feasibly be accomplished.

In FY 2010, 201 projects were submitted for review and only 15 were funded. Even more troubling, 91% of critical safety issues (submissions that scored a 10 in safety) went unfunded and thus unaddressed. The FY 2013 maintenance project waiting list topped $3 billion, and required the MBTA to spend at least $694 million annually to prevent conditions from getting worse. Additionally, almost all of the heavy rail cars (the Blue, Red, and Orange subway lines) are at or have exceeded their useful life estimates of 25-35 years. The Red line’s Fleet #1 is celebrating its 45 birthday this year (D’Alessandro 2009 MBTA Review).

In addition to not balancing its checkbook, the MBTA is running off the rails, quite literally, at times. One project, ranked critical by the MBTA, involved the separation of subway tracks from the concrete due to leaks and water damage between Alewife and Harvard stations. This project went unfunded for five years and was finally addressed in 2011 after two cars in a six-car train derailed in 2009. FY 2014 saw the potential diversion of $48.1 million of federal money allotted for maintenance to cover operating costs, if other means didn’t close the gap between projected and actual budgets (MBTA Operating Budget FY 2014 Summary Sheet).

How is it that a transit authority cannot find funds to address its most imperative safety issues? The MBTA, as a quasi-public institution, is funded in part by receipts from one penny of the 6.25% Massachusetts sales tax. Years of deferred debt payments, expansion plans, and an inability to regulayte labor costs has left the T swimming in the red, bogged down further by an increasing ridership and ever increasing costs of maintenance fees and repairs (D’Alessandro 2009 MBTA Review).

All of which begs the question, who will pull it from the mire?

The MBTA points the finger to the federal government, anticipating $2.3 billion from the Federal Transit Authority between FY 2013-2017 to help finance their placement of obsolete train cars and basic maintenance through the Capital Investment Plan (MBTA CIP FY 2013-2017). It will provide $651 million for repairs in FY2015 (which begins July 1, 2014).

This will do little more than maintain the status quo of a flawed system, with Boston transit lagging behind schedule and the “State of Good Repair” standard.

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