Massachusetts Looking to New York for Clues on Funding Transport

New Massachusetts Transportation Authority would combine MBTA and the Turnpike Authority

As a result of today’s difficult economic circumstances, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is facing a $160 million budget deficit and the state government is pushing for major reforms to prevent the agency from again falling into the fiscal hole. After being prodded on by Governor Deval Patrick (D), the state House and Senate are currently considering legislation that would radically alter the face of Massachusetts transportation by combining the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority into a new Massachusetts Transportation Authority. The formulation – transit services plus toll-raising bridges, tunnels, and roadways – closely follows the form of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The new authority would be under the direct supervision of the governor, who would sit as the head of the board, and who would also appoint all four other members. The lack of input from other sources – such as the city of Boston or the state legislature, for instance – is problematic, as the formulation basically allows the governor to make unilateral decisions about state transportation. That could be dangerous under a transit-hostile executive.

Defenders of the legislation, such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), “said the bill will rein in costs through consolidations and streamlining of the delivery of transportation services,” according to an AP article. How exactly a transit agency and turnpike authority being combined will lead to “streamlining” is a mystery to me, considering they offer completely different services.

The bill would reduce the amount of money paid out to victims of transportation accidents; several cases have caused the authority to lose millions of dollars in lawsuits, and the government sees this legal reduction as one way to rein in costs. But while the MBTA might lose a few million a year on such accidents, reducing settlements won’t nearly make up for the large budget deficit.

Whether or not the new authority would actually have the means to balance the transit system’s operating deficit is unclear, as the Massachusetts Turnpike in its current formulation doesn’t make a profit that could be used to fund transit, as do the tunnels and bridges operated by New York’s MTA. Rather, the Turnpike simply pays for its own operations through the toll revenues. Toll hikes, fare increases, or the addition of another tax source will be necessary to get Boston’s transit system back on track, not simply a reorganization of the agencies.

What makes New York’s MTA relatively efficient is its willingness to redistribute with a vengeance; of the $1.5 billion it collects yearly in tolls, it only sends about $400 million back to the bridges and tunnels, with more than a billion dollars going to transit to make up for a programmed deficit there. That’s made possible because of high tolls and efficient maintenance of the structures.

Can Massachusetts do the same by raising tolls and reducing overhead on its tollways? It will have to if it wants this agency reorganization to have any positive effect.

1 Comment | Leave a Reply »
  • Kyle - Boston

    A lot of this is just window dressing. The common complaint is that MBTA and other state transportation agency personnel are overpaid, have excessive benefits and management is basically clueless. The sad part is that a lot of this is true and a reorganization has to take place so people don’t think that more money continues to be funneled to an incompetent agency.

    There is no question that the MBTA needs new revenue, but that won’t happen until the reorganization bill is law. I would hold judgment until the final bill is approved, this reorg. might actually be a good thing. Once that happens, we will see serious new revenue proposals.

    The gas tax has received the most press by far.

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