Boston’s Recent Subway Nightmares Highlight Failures of Our Political System

For about a month now, New England has been pummeled with massive winter storms, leaving large swaths of the region with feet of snow and frequently making travel impossible.

This has been particularly excruciating for residents who rely on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for transportation. The MBTA is the public operator of the greater Boston area’s subways, buses and commuter rails. The MBTA has been shut down multiple times this winter and has frequently run with massive delays, stranding commuters and losing millions of dollars for small businesses throughout the city.

Blizzards, and subsequent subway closures, impact low-wage workers the most, as almost all lack sick or personal days. “There is no working from home if you’re a sales associate or if you’re a cashier. If they can’t get to work because of weather, you miss a paycheck. If the store closes early or works with a skeleton staff, you miss a paycheck,” said Amy Traub, an economic observer at the progressive think tank Demos.

According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, more than 40% of Boston’s low-wage workers use public transportation to get to their jobs. The story quotes a 33-year-old Dunkin' Donuts employee and mother of two, the morning after a major storm: “I was worried this morning about my rent. This month, we don’t make nothing.”

The MBTA’s reliability has been something of a punchline between locals for years (the frustrating experiences of the service even inspired a musical), but customer anger hit its peak during the recent storms. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared that the MBTA’s performance was “unacceptable” and the media searched for a culprit.

The scapegoat ended up being Beverly Scott. Scott has been general manager of the MBTA since 2012; prior to that she was the first woman to run Atlanta’s MARTA system. Scott resigned from her position at the MBTA shortly after giving a fiery speech in which she drew attention to the system’s depleted resources and challenged anyone to do better.

Shortly after, the Boston Herald, the region’s most-read right-wing rag, printed an investigation of Scott’s travel expenses, noting that MBTA spending had increased since she took over in 2011. “The GM has traveled to, among other cities, San Diego, Montreal, New York, Denver, Portland, Oregon, and to Washington a total of eight times, including flying first class in January 2013 to a Rail-Volution conference,” the paper reported.

A certain demographic is surely receptive to a narrative involving a bureaucratic institution sealing its fate via frivolous overspending, and it probably doesn’t hurt that Scott is African American. However, beyond the contours of reactionary analysis, many residents began to wonder why Gov. Baker wasn’t taking more of a hit.

After all, roughly a week before certain regions were hit with over two feet of snow, Baker called for $40 million to be cut from the public transportation budget, $14 million of which would come from the MBTA. The governor insisted that the cuts would not impact service, but many still wondered why public transportation was one of the first things on the chopping block.

Then there was the matter of the Big Dig, Boston’s infamous highway megaproject that ran over schedule by four years and over budget by roughly 190%. The massive debt accrued through the Big Dig’s disastrous planning was spread through various state agencies, with $1.7 billion of it being shifted to the MBTA in 2000.

Baker has consistently downplayed his connection to the Big Dig, particularly when the issue came up during his recent election, but there’s ample evidence to suggest he was one of the project’s key players. As the state’s former secretary of administration and finance, Baker was a hugely influential force. According to the Boston Globe, “The financing plan structured by Baker left no cushion for future cost overruns in the project, even though, at the time, fiscal watchdogs said overruns were probable…The federal Government Accounting Office warned in 1997 and again in 1998 that Baker’s borrowing plan could fall hundreds of millions of dollars short.”

The MBTA’s problem obviously isn’t just Baker. Nor is it necessarily its Big Dig debt or the most recent cuts. The problem is the political culture he symbolizes; a culture that surrounds the state’s public transportation system. What the MBTA needs is investment; money that would enable it to make vast improvements and better serve commuters. Beverly Scott might be on the verge of leaving, but her comments about the systems’ problems remain very real.

When I spoke with Joshua Ostroff, of Transportation for Massachusetts, he emphasized the need for long-term solutions. “Massachusetts has an infrastructure crisis that is long in the making. The primary reason, well documented in a series of bipartisan reports, is a lack of funding for investment in both public transportation and our road and bridge network. Our trains, buses, stations, signals and other transit infrastructure is decades out of date. We have not added the capacity to serve our needs for today or tomorrow.”

In 2011, Ostroff’s organization released a report titled "Maxed Out," which detailed exactly how broken the MBTA is: that year 25% of its operating budget went to debt service, which is the organization’s second leading cost after salaries. The MBTA’s Orange Line has 120 cars (built between 1979-1981) that need to be replaced; the Red Line has 74 cars (built in 1969) that have to be replaced, Mattapan’s high-speed line has cars that were built in the 1940s, and nearly every single commuter rail train is past the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan of 25 years.

Discussions regarding investment are generally disregarded by local leadership, regardless of party. Baker is a Republican, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he somehow doesn’t believe the MBTA needs any new revenue, but this exact point was also echoed by Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who claims that the MBTA can be saved via reform as opposed to funding.

By the same token, the aforementioned $40 million cut was approved by a Democrat-dominated state Senate. As Democratic State Senator Karen Spilka  insisted  after the vote, “Given the recent MBTA problems with all of the snow and the breakdowns across the state, I can understand...the hesitance in making these cuts to transportation. However, the severity of our fiscal situation means that nearly all agencies are taking a cut."

Spilka is certainly correct about the seriousness of the problem (a recent report estimated that Massachusetts could be looking at a $1.5 billion shortfall in the coming fiscal year), but the state’s economic policies have put it in this bind. To respond to these woes by slashing public services is the most predictable neoliberal script. As Fenway resident and local organizer Jonathan Cohn told me, “Massachusetts has been slashing budgets of social services for years, so cuts to other programs would be an unacceptable and unconscionable solution. What Massachusetts needs is a progressive income tax. Although conservatives like to throw around the moniker ‘Taxachusetts,’ Massachusetts currently has a flat tax, a system far too regressive for a nominally liberal state like ours. And it's time for those who are benefiting most to pay their fair share.”

Last week, after Massachusetts was pummeled with another 16 inches of snow, it was revealed that the city had begun relying on prison labor to help shovel out commuter rail tracks. The median wage for state prisoners is 20 cents an hour, a fact that seemed hardly to phase Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh.

As the story goes to print, Baker has proposed an MBTA "funding hike." However, his plan really isn't an increase considering the previous cuts, as the MBTA will end up witth $15 million less than they expected to get this year. As Rafael Mares, of the Conservation Law Foundation, points out, "It's really cutting the [MBTA's] budget." Much can be gleaned from the disasters of the MBTA, but above all, it serves as a reminder that our nation’s public transportation systems are woefully inadequate and that our democracy deficit is bipartisan. 


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