$100 Million in the Hole

Today’s news about the T needing at least $100 million to upgrade the Red and Orange line fleets — fleets that are decades past their date of expiration — comes months after Boston’s Jason Schwartz drew the same conclusion. (And with far scarier graphics.) The reality is not that the T needs $100 million to fix aging fleets of trains, because that $100 million only fixes things temporarily. The reality is that the T needs probably $1 billion to upgrade the fleets properly, and $3 billion to address all other upkeep problems.

The T didn’t just discover this holy-hell mess. It’s known about it for years, 11 to be specific, which is when the state legislature switched the model under which the T was funded. (In his story, Schwartz does a great job detailing what this new funding model has wrought.)

The T is just making do with the money it has. We should all resist the urge to blame it for its troubles. Blame state politicians instead, every single one of them over the last decade, who have seen how direly the T needs more money, and spring after legislative spring said, “Maybe next year.”

What we have today is an increasingly unsafe system, one where we’ll be fortunate if over the next few years our worst concerns are delays. To keep operating, the T is already working some heavy accounting jujitsu, the bureaucratic equivalent of paying off credit cards with more credit cards. The ability to address any of this — the need to prevent death or at the very least insolvency — can likely only come from two sources: taxes and fare increases. (Though Schwartz, in his piece, finds other revenue streams (and, yes, I’ll keep plugging the story until you click on it).) But fare increases and taxes are DOA each spring on Beacon Hill: the suburban and exurban reps don’t want to upgrade a system that their constituents barely use; urban politicians see little political gain in a massive project that will prevent danger and make lives easier, especially when danger is not imminent this second and lives are easier already thanks to low-ish taxes and subway fares.

The one politician who not only knew of the T’s troubles and wanted to right them and had the power to do so was the North End’s own Sal DiMasi. I did a piece on the former Speaker a couple years ago, just as his own troubles, which he’d no doubt argue are as bad as the T’s, began to surface. What didn’t make it into the story was what DiMasi would have done had he not gotten in trouble. His aides tell me he would have passed a gas tax in his next term as Speaker. A gas tax would have had money the T could use for upkeep. It could have gone a long way to prevent stories like Schwartz’s, or this morning’s.

But only expect such headlines to continue now.