Friday, February 27, 2015

MBTA Problems Stem From State Officials

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, Feb 27, 2015
By Bill Gouveia


            If the latest fuss over the MBTA by state legislators and officials weren’t so harmful and hypocritical, it would be funny.  But it’s hard to laugh when one of the key components of your state’s economic engine is running like a gerbil on a worn treadmill.

            The Winter of 2015 will go down in history as the time when state officials rediscovered their mass transit system.  Though most of them probably haven’t ridden the beleaguered T in a while, many are now discovering they have to at least look like they are paying some attention to it.

            The MBTA has long been a tremendous source of patronage for legislators and governors.  Because it is technically a separate entity from state government, officials have long considered themselves politically insulated from it.  They are always quick to jump on the T’s accomplishments, but are adept at distancing themselves from its many problems.

            You have to wonder why it took the worst winter of our generation for lawmakers to realize the MBTA has not been spending enough money on maintenance and equipment.  Their apparent amazement at the overly-generous pensions, collective bargaining agreements and executive travel expenses they helped create makes it difficult for anyone to take them seriously.  But since most of them run virtually unopposed, I guess they can get away with this “holier-than-thou” act.

            The fact the T had serious issues in the midst of eight feet of snow over a few weeks is hardly shocking.  Most of us had trouble getting to the end of our driveways.  That the local mass transit system could not move hundreds of thousands of people given the weather should not surprise anyone.

            Now suddenly there are committees being formed, and Gov. Baker is acting tough and issuing ultimatums.  While the call to action is a welcome change and reforming the MBTA is a great idea, we should all remember that politicians created this problem.  They built the MBTA, politicized it, milked it for their political advantage, and now are using it as a scapegoat.

            Gov. Baker is a prime example.  While running for his current job, he refused to take a position on the T expanding service on an existing (though in need of upgrading) rail line to Gillette Stadium.  After he won and the snows came, he suddenly found the courage and wisdom to say it is a bad idea.

            But at the same time – as the Sun Chronicle’s Jim Hand so insightfully noted in his recent commentary – he stands firmly behind bringing rail service to the New Bedford/Fall River area.  This is something politicians have been promising for years, even though the price tag is absurd and it would require far more new construction. 

            That’s because he needs votes from that heavily Democratic area, just the way his predecessors did.  So he caters to them despite the foolishness and the cost.

            Politicians can’t make it without serious support from the long-ignored South Coast communities.  But towns like Foxboro, Norton, and other surrounding towns just don’t have enough numbers to be “important” to those who make the rules.

            Foxboro gets some attention because of the stadium and the desire to develop the land around it.  The state and the MBTA are willing to spend big bucks on service there because they believe they will get it back in economic development, new jobs, and increased revenues.  Whether they are correct in that assumption remains to be seen.

            Local politicians are not exempt from the hypocrisy surrounding the T either.  Foxboro selectman and former state legislator Virginia Coppola recently backed Baker and again criticized T officials for not communicating better with the local leaders.  She blasted the MBTA for not seeking local input, declaring: “So much for transparency.”

            The Foxboro Board of Selectmen criticizing others for a lack of transparency is a bit like the Yankees telling other teams they shouldn’t spend so much money.  But that’s another story for another day.

            Make no mistake - the problems with the MBTA are largely caused by a lack of leadership and sound fiscal management from the State House.  The T is crucial to our future here in Massachusetts, and we must both maintain and grow the system if we expect it to survive.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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