Is the MBTA Safe to Ride?
One night last November, Patrick Rosso stepped onto a loaded Orange Line car at Haymarket and smelled smoke. Not cigarette smoke, but a heavier, more-industrial scent. By the next stop, State, the smell had grown stronger. Rosso saw gray wisps float past the windows. His nostrils started to burn, but before anything more could register, the doors closed and the train rumbled on toward Downtown Crossing. The stench worsened, and the smoke started coming up thicker. Finally, when the doors opened again, somebody called out, “The train’s on fire!”
As riders scrambled out, Rosso reached for his phone and started video recording. People were cursing and hollering at one another. A T official soon entered the picture, yelling through the haze for everyone to back up. “People were definitely scared,” Rosso recalls.
This wasn’t the first subway fire near Downtown Crossing. Six months earlier, another blaze had shut down the Red, Orange, and Green lines, sending 20 people to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Though this episode wasn’t as bad—the station was evacuated, but nobody was hurt—I decided to dial up the MBTA anyway, curious about what other hazards were lurking along the T’s tracks.
A year prior to my call, former John Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro had, at the governor’s behest, released a report that found quite a few safety issues. The MBTA was in full-on crisis, according to D’Alessandro. Its finances were broken and the system was getting dangerous to ride. The report highlighted 57 maintenance projects that the T itself had identified as critical to the safety of riders and employees alike, all of them receiving a rating of 10 on the authority’s scale of 1 to 10. And yet, money hadn’t been budgeted to complete 51 of those projects. So after the November fire, I wanted to follow up myself, to see how many new problems had emerged in the year since D’Alessandro’s report.
Sorry, MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said: The T scrapped its 10-point scale in the wake of the report. This meant the T had ditched its only means of conveying the soundness of its infrastructure. Today MBTA officials simply decide which safety undertakings do and don’t get funded, leaving the rest of us guessing at their reasons. The number of new critical repairs needed, then, is unknown and unknowable. That’s because MBTA general manager Richard Davey contends there aren’t any—that the system is totally safe and he wouldn’t run it if it weren’t. Davey says the old rating system was flawed and misidentified routine problems as dangers. Even if that were true, and the ranking system were flawed, it was still only after the D’Alessandro report intensely criticized the T that anyone there saw fit to change it. It’d be one thing if Davey had replaced the old system with something else. But he didn’t.
These days, however, bureaucratic opaqueness is the least of the T’s problems. Its infrastructure is decayed and its finances are worse than ever, both seemingly beyond repair. The authority has nearly $9 billion (and growing) in debt it can’t pay and $3 billion (and growing) in backlogged maintenance projects it can’t fund. That means not only that service will suffer, but also that the system will become less and less safe. History shows that it takes a tragedy—deaths—to fix something as basic as infrastructure. Hopefully Massachusetts won’t wait for that.
Breaking Down the Breakdowns
Why you’re always late—and potentially in danger—when you ride the T
The MBTA has a roughly $3 billion backlog of maintenance projects, according to CFO Jonathan Davis. That means that even if nothing else went wrong with the system, the T would still have to spend $3 billion just to get everything that’s broken now working like it should. Obviously, equipment is going to continue to break and get old, so the MBTA says the goal is simply to keep its “State of Good Repair” backlog from growing. To do that, the authority calculates it must spend $470 million a year. One problem: The T has been using that $470 million figure for at least five years. Northeastern’s Stephanie Pollack, who studies the MBTA, estimates the authority should actually be spending about $100 million a year more than it is. And D’Alessandro’s report found the correct number to be $224 million more than is being budgeted. So not enough money is being spent. And when you don’t spend enough on maintenance, the system deteriorates. As of press time, 27 maintenance projects that the T deemed critical for safety two years ago are still unfunded this year. Here’s a sampling of what is not getting repaired.
Retaining Wall: If this wall in Quincy Center isn’t repaired or replaced, it could crumble onto the tracks, causing a derailment or injuring T employees. Requires $2.1 million
Green Line Signals: Yeah, we know it sounds boring, but signals are the way trains communicate with one another. On the Red, Orange, and Blue lines, this communication is automated to ensure that the trains never get too close and remain in sync. On the Green Line, though, it’s all on the train operators: This is why Green Line cars stop and start so much in the tunnels. The National Transportation Safety Board recommends an automated system—it found that the May 2008 Green Line crash that killed a T operator could have been prevented by one. “There is nothing more safety-critical to a rail line than its signal system,” according to an MBTA budget request. “Green Line collisions over the decades have cost the Authority millions of dollars in replacement costs to infrastructure and vehicles, as well as lawsuits.” Requires $1.2 million
Blown-Out Circuit Breakers: Circuit breakers, which prevent electronic overloads and faults, need to have their trip settings recalibrated from time to time. Many haven’t been looked at in 10 years, leading to shorts and blowouts. “The total number of blowouts has increased in recent years, particularly on the Green Line,” according to the MBTA. “In a worst-case scenario, an uncleared fault could ignite a fire on-board a train, which would jeopardize the safety of all
the riders.” Requires $759,213
Platform Fixes: There’s not supposed to be more than 3 inches of gap space between a station platform and the door of a subway train, nor are stopped trains supposed to sit more than 2 inches above or below the platform. Too often these standards aren’t met. The T hopes to spend $1.1 million to study strategies for shrinking these dangerous gaps. The authority also needs to spend $3.5 million to repair crumbling platforms, and $115,925 for bridge plates that allow disabled people to safely board trains. Requires $4.7 million
Hazardous Wires: Overhead wooden ceiling troughs hold electrical wires throughout the Green Line’s subway tunnels and, according to the MBTA, “are a safety hazard for our customers as well as our employees as they are frequently catching fire.” Requires $1.2 million
Really Old Cables: The oft-faulty cables running between the South Boston and Forest Hill power stations are about 60 years old. They run power to large portions of the Red, Orange, and Green lines. Their existing duct banks (and the manholes covering them) use asbestos for fireproofing, which is hazardous to T workers. The budget request also notes, “The existing duct bank is fragile and subject to collapse, which could present a safety hazard
to vehicles passing over them.” Requires $52.9 million
How Did We Get in This Mess?
In other words, why the MBTA is broke and can’t fix anything.
To say that the MBTA is in debt is like saying it snowed here in 1978: Sure, it’s true, but it sells the severity of things just a wee bit short. At $8.6 billion in the red, the MBTA is so strapped, and its debt payments so high, that the only way the authority has been able to pay down the number is by—you guessed it—borrowing even more. So for the past decade, the MBTA has effectively been using credit cards to pay off credit cards.
Fiscal Insanity: Until 2000, the authority got its money by simply sending a bill to the legislature at the end of each year. Nobody had much incentive to innovate or find savings. So legislators came up with a plan in 2000 to make the T live within an annually balanced budget. The plan, called “forward funding,” would give the MBTA dedicated sources of revenue and force it to reform. This seemed smart.
Flawed Funding Formula: Legislators anticipated that revenue from the sales tax would grow at 3 percent a year. That wasn’t an outrageous idea; it had gone up at an even higher rate in the 1990s. To enact forward funding, lawmakers dedicated one penny out of every 5 cents of the sales tax to the MBTA. But—and this is a big but—legislators never accounted for the possibility that healthcare, fuel, energy, or, really, any costs at all might ever increase. They also didn’t adequately prepare for future T expansion—not even for projects then mandated by Beacon Hill. To make matters worse, some $3 billion of preexisting debt was piled onto the system—including $1.67 billion in borrowing related to the Big Dig that had less to do with the T and more to do with political horse-trading.
Permanent Implementation of Short-Term Solutions: A dirty secret: The forward-funding law was designed merely as a temporary fix. “None of us were pretending that [the T] could live within that money in perpetuity,” says state Senator Stan Rosenberg, who helped shape the bill. But no one asked questions about the plan’s longevity, according to one legislative aide intimately involved in creating forward funding, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When [the plan] landed on people’s desks, to the extent that anyone took a look at it—and I’d probably guess in the legislature maybe three people did—the underlying assumptions were not challenged; they were not vetted,” the aide says.
Lower Tax Collections: Since 2000, sales tax revenue hasn’t gone up at nearly the rate the state expected, and in recent years it has actually decreased. Meanwhile, the T’s operating costs have grown by about 5 percent per year since 2000. Last year, the MBTA faced a $230 million gap between expenses and revenue. The legislature stepped up with $160 million—but that wasn’t enough.
Borrowing to Close budget Gaps: Without the money to maintain a balanced budget, something that’s mandated by state law, the MBTA has had to keep borrowing to make ends meet. The T has refinanced and restructured its debt every year since 2002.
Escalating Debt: Higher debt-service payments mean bigger annual deficits. Last year alone the T spent $434.5 million in finance payments, which was an increase of $92.7 million from the preceding year. “They’re in a class by themselves,” Northeastern’s Stephanie Pollack says. By comparison, the New York transit system, which is about 10 times the size of the MBTA, carries a debt ratio that’s roughly one-third the size of the T’s. In fact, things are so bad with the MBTA that the $434.5 million it paid last year just to cover its debt is almost equal to the money it collected from fares. So every dollar that we, the riders, pay to the T does little more than provide the authority the money it needs to make the minimum payment on the money it owes.
Even with its Finances in the Gutter, the MBTA Is Able to Keep Borrowing: When you buy something in Massachusetts, one out of every 6.25 cents you pay in sales tax (the rate was raised in 2009) goes straight into the MBTA’s piggy bank. The T can then go to Wall Street and sell bonds to investors. The authority uses the money from the sales tax to guarantee those bonds. Basically, the T can say, “Your investment will always be repaid.” That fixed source of income has allowed the MBTA to continually borrow at exceptionally low rates. Robin Prunty, an analyst for Standard & Poor’s, acknowledged that it wouldn’t even matter if the T shut down tomorrow and never ran another train. So long as Massachusetts has a sales tax, investors who buy the T’s bonds will be repaid. And that’s how the MBTA maintains its sterling credit ratings. That said, cheap credit has proved a double-edged sword for the T. Yes, it’s good that it can borrow from Wall Street at low rates. At the same time, it has meant the candy shop is always open. The T can always return to Wall Street to borrow more and avoid making hard choices.
But Hard Choices Are Coming: There actually is a limit to how much the MBTA can borrow, it turns out. Prunty, the S & P analyst, estimates that the authority has about $500 million worth of borrowing space left. And Brian Kane of the MBTA Advisory Board says that if the T continues increasing its debt at current rates, in three to five years it will reach its limit. “They don’t have any more tricks left,” says Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “They’re running out of room, unquestionably.”
How To Fix the T
In other words, people are going to get hurt (or worse) riding the T.
The MBTA’s problems are so monumental, it doesn’t matter that Richard Davey, its GM, is good at his job. Or that the state’s 2009 transportation law reformed the T, eliminating the costly rule allowing employees to retire with full benefits after 23 years. Skilled managers and legislative tweaks simply aren’t enough to fix the system. It is deeply, structurally flawed. MBTA CFO Jonathan Davis says he doesn’t want to raise fares, cut service, or increase the T’s debt load. So how can the MBTA plug its budget deficit? “I don’t know. That’s going to be a challenge,” Davis says. He’s right. Massive problems require massive solutions—otherwise, simply put, people are going to get hurt (or worse) riding the T.
How to Raise More Money
The forward-funding scheme needs to be scrapped. Northeastern’s Stephanie Pollack suggests that the MBTA not rely solely on the state sales tax. Just like you want a diversified stock portfolio, it makes sense for the MBTA to have an array of strong revenue streams. To get there, she says, the T should draw on the entities that most depend on it.
Charge Universities: Greater Boston, you may have heard, is home to many colleges and universities—none of which pay taxes. Pollack suggests the MBTA try something similar to what Chicago did. There, city leaders started a program called the U-Pass plan, under which schools buy $100-per-student-per-semester transit passes for all of their students. The transit authority gets dependable income and, because not all students use $100 worth of transit per term, a nice subsidy. The students who do frequent the subway tend to ride during off-peak times (when was the last time you met a college student awake by morning rush hour?), and are a light burden on the system. We have roughly 330,000 college students in Boston. At $100 a pop, that could be an extra $33 million a semester, or $66 million a year. What’s in it for the schools? Better recruitment pitches. Without the T, they appear significantly less attractive.
Leverage Hospitals and Businesses: Most hospitals don’t pay taxes, either. But it’s in their interest to kick in money, too, especially since so many of them rely on the T to bring their doctors and employees to work every day. As for big businesses, many of the companies in Cambridge and Boston could not operate without the T.
Lord knows there’s no parking in town. Without the Red Line, all those startups in Kendall Square wouldn’t have as much promise. Pollack suggests trying a similar universal-pass system with the area’s biggest employers: They pay a certain amount to give all of their workers passes, the T gets badly needed revenue, and businesses and hospitals know their employees will arrive safely and on time.
Allow Cities and Towns to Tax: Almost all public transit systems in the country receive lots of cash from the cities in which they operate. Not so in Massachusetts, where the state pays the most. The 175 cities and towns in the T’s service area kick in only an annual assessment, which amounts to just 10 percent of the MBTA’s total revenue.
Here, municipalities have little authority to tax their citizens. So if cities and towns can’t raise money themselves, they can’t be expected to fund the MBTA. However, cities and towns last year received the permission to tack on .75 percent to the meals tax. It was a rare chance for them to levy their own taxes; the legislature should consider letting them have others. That way, the places that benefit from the T could have the tools necessary to raise more money for it. (That they’d implement a T tax may be wishful thinking.)
What Davey Wants
The GM suggests one way out of this mess is for the T to finally shake off its Big Dig shackles. As part of the forward-funding scheme in 2000, the T inherited $1.67 billion in debt from Big Dig–related projects. Davey would like to see the state pick that obligation back up. “The debt around the Central Artery commitments is the key,” he says. “If we could take those [commitments] off our books, that saves about $110 million per year in debt service…. Next year, I’ve got about a $110 million deficit.” This, however, is not likely. The state is already in a crunch, facing a $2 billion deficit. Adding another $1.67 billion to it is not a political reality. Here’s Davey’s plan to raise money:
Reconfiguring Health Benefits: The MBTA is battling its union to move employees into the Group Insurance Commission—which Davey estimates would save the authority $30 million a year in health insurance costs.
Parking Facility Charges: Davey is considering a plan to sell the MBTA’s parking revenue for a certain number of years to a buyer who would give the T an up-front chunk of cash. This could immediately net the authority as much as $325 million. But it would lose the roughly $35 million per year it currently makes on parking receipts.
Targeting Fare Evasion: There is a $15 ticket if you’re caught. Davey wants serious enforcement, perhaps as much as a $150 ticket.