[personal profile] dmaze
Hello from home, since I can't go to work because the T isn't running, in turn because the T says that if a third train gets stranded they'll have trouble evacuating people in the dark. My Facebook feed is largely blaming this on a combination of excessive weather and old equipment (a third of the Red Line fleet is 45 years old, with an expected lifetime of 30). Meanwhile, our Republican governor, apparently parroting the Republican line that everything can be fixed with budget cuts, is proposing to cut $14 million from the T's budget. Now, $14 million isn't actually useful capital spending in this context, oddly enough — the newest Blue Line train cars cost $2 million apiece — but if the T needs more spending, how does cutting its budget help? Perhaps more interestingly, our governor was elected in part based on his business credentials, could private business run the T better?

The first most obvious statement is that private business would never run the T in its current form. Like many of the larger US transit systems, the system we have today we got by early-20th-century streetcar companies going out of business and getting absorbed into a government-run regional system. I know the T as a whole only gets about a third of its funding from farebox revenue, with commuter rail losing the most money, but expansion projects like the South Coast commuter rail keep getting proposed not because they are cost-effective on their own but because they are better than expanding MA-24 to get more people to Taunton and Fall River.

Still, I feel like the T (not alone in our state and national governments) runs on a status quo funding system. Budgeting is not "how much do you need to get done, how much will it cost, and how will we pay for it"; budgeting is "how much did you spend last year, and was it enough?" Our national conversations about really-big-ticket programs like the military and Social Security are always framed in terms of cutting spending to our troops/seniors/children/..., and not in terms of "the U.S. military needs to accomplish X this year". The reverse of this is that taxes are so decoupled from spending in the public mind that it's very easy to say "I don't want my tax dollars going to wars halfway across the world or abstince-only 'education' programs" and ignore that you do want your tax dollars going to roads and teachers.

I sort of wonder whether the T could get away with an out-of-cycle fare increase. It goes like this: the T has about 600 cars on the rapid transit system; they last 30 years, so we need to replace 20 a year; they cost $2 million each; so we need to spend $40 million a year on capital to get new T cars. Meanwhile, the T has about 280 million annual boardings (heavy rail, light rail), so a $0.20 fare increase should cover it...right?

That $14 million isn't sounding so bad now.

I feel like the planning and purchase program for government assets and rail equipment in particular is especially bad, and that doesn't help things. There aren't many reputable rail car manufacturers left in the United States, but government agencies are required to buy from an American company. That gets us lawsuits and additional costs when the process chooses an American shell company for a Chinese manufacturer. It gets us a decade-long battle to get working Green Line cars from an American shell company for an Italian manufacturer...which by all accounts was better than the previous decade-long battle to get working Green Line rail cars from an all-American, true-blue, heavily-government-connected aircraft manufacturer.

But I also feel like we split capital and operating in a really serious was here and that hurts us. $300 million to replace the oldest Red Line cars? That sounds like a bond issue, and ooh, the T has too much debt already. Nobody tries to say "if you save your quarters for 8 years, you can buy this nice thing". This is a problem that private industry doesn't have (even the rail industry, where the seven largest US railroads are spending billions of dollars on capital improvements because they have to to keep the trains moving) and I suspect it is a problem that in fact better management can lead to better long-term planning can lead to a fix.

So Baker's Harvard Pilgrim bona fides? He did just get elected, and for that matter the T's GM is relatively new also, and change takes time. If he can get the T and the rest of state government into thinking ahead about new trains and fixing bridges and other things that cost money over time, I'll be impressed, and he might win my vote next election. I'm not holding my breath on this one though.



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