The Relentless Quest for Expansion

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Some familiar faces are once again calling for new revenues for our state transportation system(on SHNS, sub req’d.). Its been well-documented that the system is woefully underfunded and we’ll need new revenues sooner or later.

But I can’t join in with the chorus right now.

First, I don’t think the state is doing a good enough job telling us what they are doing with their money and if its making a difference (see previous post).

Second, I’m highly skeptical that new revenues would be spent to remedy the massive maintenance backlog on our infrastructure before another dollar gets spent on expansion. Many of these same voices calling for new revenues and decrying the lack of maintenance were also the ones supporting expansion, expansion that we never had the means to adequately maintain.

This mental disconnect exists even today. The South Coast Rail project, whose price tag is currently at $1.4 billion (for 4,400 to 5,000 boardings per day), has no obvious means of financing. The current version of the Governor’s capital spending plan has $10 million allocated to the project (just $1.39 billion left to go!). The MBTA has precious little debt capacity left, and much of that is being used by restructurings to free up current operating cash.

The Administration’s standard line has been that corridor financing (i.e. some tax mechanism to capture the increase in development and value in properties proximate to the new rail line) will pay for the cost. One former Secretary of Transportation who strayed from this line had to quickly correct his remarks.

But even if we could build the project, there’s no money to operate it.

So, we have a project with strong political support, modest actual ridership figures, and no means of financing construction or funding operations. If we inject new funds into the transportation system and free up money for expansion projects like this, we aren’t addressing the long-term problem of underfunding and a lack of maintenance, we are making it worse by repeating the error of unsustainable expansion.

It’s this unwillingness to face hard realities that makes it impossible to join in the call for new revenues, however desperate the need.