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Time to Capitalize on Momentum for the MBTA’s Capital Investment Plan (Op-Ed)

July 29, 2019

This op-ed, authored by Chamber president & CEO Jim Rooney, appeared in Banker & Tradesman in July 2019.

Greater Boston is experiencing economic growth unlike ever before in our history. Our ability to attract capital, businesses, talent and visitors makes us one of the most competitive metro areas in the country, and our region compares favorably to other major U.S. cities across nearly every significant quality of life factor. 

When it comes to our state’s transportation infrastructure, however, U.S. News & World Report’s “Best States 2019” rankings have us toward the bottom of the barrel at number 40 overall and 46 for commute times. Tell this to any of the 1.5 million people who commute in Greater Boston each morning and you likely won’t find anyone who’s surprised.  

For our region to maintain and grow our leading economy, we need strategic investments in public transit that will spur increased ridership and decreased traffic congestion. A strengthened transportation system will also help us address some of the most pressing issues facing our region such as housing, economic opportunity and workforce development. 

My hope is that the governor’s acceleration proposal creates the momentum needed for the MBTA to discover what it is truly capable of. 

What’s at Stake in MBTA’s Five-Year Plan 

There are many strategic plans in play at the MBTA, but the most important roadmap to realizing our dream of a world–class public transit system is the MBTA’s recently approved five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP). The CIP includes $8.2 billion in planned funding between fiscal years 2020 and 2024 with thousands of individual projects ranging from Positive Train Control to the Green Line Extension project and new cars for the Red and Orange lines. 

Recent delays on major capital projects coupled with two serious train derailments have brought an increased focus to the importance of the CIP, including from Gov. Charlie Baker himself who, after the June Red Line train derailment, announced a five-part plan to accelerate capital delivery. The governor’s plan is encouraging, and I am pleased to see a greater sense of urgency around our public transit crisis from the administration and the MBTA.  

Now that these new initiatives are in play however, it is critical for the MBTA to transition quickly to execution mode and restore our confidence in its ability to deliver results. 

To do this, the MBTA must first achieve its current spending goals. The MBTA has yet to meet a stated spending goal on capital investments despite large increases after the creation of the FMCB. In fiscal 2019 the MBTA is projected to spend only $775 million on an $850 million target for the state of good repair backlog because the organization lacks the capacity to execute on both maintenance and expansion projects. 

The governor’s proposal to accelerate capital work starts to address this issue by creating an additional workforce capable of carrying out both capital and operating projects, adding more aggressive weekend and late-night work schedules and seeking more flexibility in procurement regulations to maximize private partnerships. 

The proposal also includes an ask for a one-time allotment of $50 million in funds from the legislature. This, or some appropriate amount of money for execution, needs to be baked in to the MBTA’s annual funding plan beyond 2019 to maintain an accelerated level of effort. And building off of the governor’s plan for added capacity, the expected result should be that the MBTA meets its full capital spending goal of $1.4 billion in fiscal 2020.  

MBTA Has $1.2B It Isn’t Spending 

An inability to spend money is not an accurate reflection of need. The MBTA must address both capacity and funding needs concurrently. The current CIP will underspend available funding sources by $1.2 billion but, starting in 2021, there are yearly opportunities to update and increase those planned investments.  

My hope is that the governor’s acceleration proposal creates the momentum needed for the MBTA to discover what it is truly capable of. And with that momentum, the MBTA and its governing body should immediately reevaluate long-term spending goals to more accurately reflect the current and future needs of the system. We know, for example, that there is currently no money in the CIP for a comprehensive climate resiliency plan and that beyond five years, the financing plan is incomplete. 

The business community has much invested in successful execution of the CIP, and we are committed to helping the MBTA get there. The MBTA should better leverage the business community’s stake in the CIP by using private sector project management and engineering firms to supplement staff while in-house capacity is strengthened. If capacity issues continue to prevent the MBTA from completing the projects it has promised us, it may be time to consider a governing body solely focused on capital delivery. 

We can endlessly debate if the MBTA’s current capital plan is robust enough to serve our state’s economy, but this debate is irrelevant if the plan never becomes a reality. According to Baker, the MBTA will soon receive new tools to help it move in the right direction. My hope is that these tools also move the MBTA closer to becoming the kind of premier capital projects entity they need to be to truly maintain and advance our region’s public transit system. That should be the bar they set for themselves and for their customers. 

James E. Rooney is president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.