Mass. Transit System 'On Life Support'

By Bob Seay

Aug. 1, 2011

A car on the MBTA's commuter rail passes through Salem, Mass. (Voluntary Amputation via Flickr)

BOSTON — After weeks of contentious negotiations on the federal debt ceiling, it might feel a bit like we’re in Debt Valley: Underwater, with walls of the money we owe surrounding us on all sides.
And that’s not happening only at the federal level. Richard Dimino, the president and CEO of A Better City, a non-profit organization that works to advance transportation and land development in the Boston area, says there’s a dramatic example of an underwater project right here in Massachusetts.
It’s our transportation system, says Dimino. It’s basically on life support.
“Right now the patient is on the respirator and there are a lot of medical technicians hovering around the patient wondering what’s going to happen,” Dimino said.
Dimino is one of those technicians. He's member of an advisory panel now tackling the daunting task of trying to figure out how we’re going to pay for what we need to run the MBTA, the state’s highway system and maintain its bridges. He says the problem is simply that we have too much debt to pay for much up front.
“We’ve been basically borrowing on top of borrowing to keep our statewide transportation system alive,” Dimino said.
Massachusetts now ranks as the nation’s top state in terms of the amount of debt that we’re servicing annually as a percentage of our total revenues.
Just how bad is it?
“I think over 70% of the resources going to transportation go to funding our debt service,” Dimino said.
So, for every $100, $70 go to paying off debt, leaving only $30 to run the system every day.
Dimino also predicts an increase in the MBTA’s operating deficit.
“(It) stands to be as close as $500 million in the next four to five years. That’s a huge gap and it means the T is going to have to look at potentially a fare increase,” Dimino said. “But even if we take that step, the numbers I’m talking about far exceed the ability to solve the problem with a fare increase.”
That, Dimino says, could mean cuts in service – a problem for the 60% of commuters into Boston who use the T and the 30% of city residents say it is their only means of transportation.
Part of the issue, Dimino said, is capital costs. It will take about $1 billion to upgrade the orange and red line cars.
“That’s not in anybody’s budget right now, that’s very sad. So what the T just did they kind of pushed around a 100 million dollars in their big budget to see if they can put some bubble gum and band-aids on that problem, cause even if they had the billion dollars the procurement process of purchasing those vehicles takes a long time,” Dimino said.
That’s not even counting the locomotives that have to be replaced on commuter rail lines. Then, throw in the cost to maintain our roads and bridges and you begin to understand just how big the bill is going to be just to maintain what we have.
Dimino says the challenge is to find the funds we need without unfairly burdening any particular stakeholders and the reality is fare hikes and higher gas taxes just won’t be enough.
Tomorrow, Dimino shares some of the ideas he has about ways we might begin to chip away at the huge debt facing the transportation system and perhaps even plan for the future.

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