The MBTA, in development of its Strategic Plan, invited the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition and many other groups to offer comments and insight. We were pleased to participate, and share our testimony provided on March 24, 2017. See the Draft Strategic Plan.
Comments on the Draft MBTA Strategic Plan (3/24/17)
Delivered by Chris Dempsey, Director of Transportation for Massachusetts
Good Afternoon. My name is Chris Dempsey, and I am the director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition, a diverse group of more than 75 organizations dedicated to better and smarter transportation policies in the Commonwealth. We are close observers and supporters of the mission of the MBTA and the state’s RTAs. Thank you for inviting us to provide comments today.
As you’ve heard other say today, and as you no-doubt saw when it was announced late last month, we’re all fortunate to be living in what U.S. News & World Report has determined is the number #1 state in the country. And not just in historic sports comebacks. Our strength is based on a number #1 ranking in education and a #2 ranking in healthcare, but U.S. News scored us very poorly in transportation, due to our decaying infrastructure and roadway congestion. So we have the healthiest and most educated human beings in the country -- and then we make them waste time sitting in traffic, or stuck on a platform waiting for a delayed train. As each of you on the board knows, this is no way to run an economy.
Transportation for Massachusetts applauds the FMCB for bringing improved focus, transparency, and creativity to the T, and we appreciate the enormous effort and sacrifices this board of volunteers has contributed to improving the T over the last 20 months. I thank you not just as the director of this coalition, but also as a daily Green Line rider and regular rider of the 66, 65, 39, and #1 buses, among others.
The strategic plan makes clear that there is even more progress ahead.
The overall scope and direction of the strategic plan is right. We are also pleased to see many of our comments from October reflected in this draft. T4Mass has some brief comments to offer on some of the specific sections of the draft plan.
The emphasis on buses is very welcomed, and especially working with cities and towns on bus system improvements including bus lanes and signal priority. We also hope that you will engage with efforts just mentioned by Lisa Jacobson of the Barr Foundation to bring bus-rapid-transit to a pilot corridor.
We are pleased to see capital project delivery and procurement improvements threaded throughout this document as a top priority for the coming years. Achieving a state of good repair in 15 years is ambitious and a fantastic goal. It would be helpful to have a little more specificity in how this will be achieved—this document should articulate strategies and benchmarks, including a specific approach to increasing engineering and project management resources to build the agency’s capacity for getting projects designed and built.
At the same time that a focus on capital investments is vital, we applaud the work and focus on controlling costs and enhancing own-source revenue. However, an overemphasis on eliminating a structural deficit risks a bias toward short-term decision-making that may have negative long-term impacts on the health, stability, and management flexibility of the system.
The strategic plan hints at eliminating the structural operating deficit by FY2021, and we believe this is a more realistic goal than FY2018. We are glad that the elimination of weekend commuter rail service is off the table for now, and hope that it stays off the table.
Finally, the board should look to clear up ambiguity on the T’s capital side. On the one hand, there have been statements made that the T cannot spend the capital dollars it has available. On the other hand, there have been statements made that any dollars from the state’s operating budget used to balance the T’s budget will detract from capital expenditures.
The document is wise to note as a significant problem the historic loss of personnel, some of which was a result of the early retirement program. Our coalition is, and will continue to be, supportive of bringing in top quality talent so that we have the best people possible running this vital system.
As an agency that is a large emitter of greenhouse gases and local pollution, but also one that takes thousands of cars off the road every day, the T is an important environmental stakeholder. Our coalition supports the prominent section on environmental stewardship and climate resiliency.
A structure of a GM with two deputies makes a lot of sense. The board structure is trickier. It is clear that the FMCB’s relentless pace of meetings has helped drive change in the agency -- it’s also a testament to the patience and understanding of your loved ones. Retaining a dedicated board that meets frequently has benefits, and we also believe that governance should follow funding, so a long-term solution that includes state and municipal voices could make sense.
While the MBTA must repair its current assets, maintenance alone will not deliver the transit system that our economy and desire for high quality-of-life demand. We must simultaneously fix the T and build what we need for tomorrow with added capacity through modernization and expansion. This comment ties back to the earlier question about capital spending capacity and human resources -- we need to make sure the MBTA has the necessary talent pool to achieve ambitious plans to fix and grow the system.
Some Final General Comments
The plan doesn’t mention the changing landscape of technological advances in transportation. New services, such as ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles, should complement, not replace, public transportation. The T has had success with partnerships that leverage these new technologies to benefit users of The Ride -- it also needs to plan ahead to minimize potential negative impacts of these technologies on the system.
The plan discusses re-envisioning of the commuter rail system, including possible in-fill stations. We are very supportive of that concept and hope that in advance of the procurement of the next commuter rail contract there will be a discussion about pursuing a true regional rail system.
Speaking of expansion and modernization, it is surprising that the strategic plan does not make reference to several major initiatives on the horizon or already started, including the Green Line Extension, South Coast Rail, and South Station Expansion.
Lastly, the Governor’s Special Panel on the T wisely identified a need for revenue for the MBTA. This should be acknowledged in the plan, particularly with the accelerated state of good repair goal and Focus 40 improvements. Our coalition, along with others, fought for new revenue that resulted in the Transportation Finance Act of 2013. But this act was both a milestone and a compromise that fell short of the long documented funding gap. We hope that the FMCB will eventually join us and many others in speaking out for the need for additional resources.
Thank you for your consideration of our comments. We look forward to engaging with the FMCB in the months and years ahead.