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Will 2019 be a turning point for the T?

March 06, 2019

The MBTA is making progress toward achieving its strategic goals, but it’s unclear whether 2019 will be the self-proclaimed “turning point” when customers start to see tangible benefits from that effort, according to an accountability report issued Wednesday by three outside organizations.

Officials from the three groups – the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the MBTA Advisory Board – say the transit authority is doing an OK job of meeting most of the goals laid out in the Fiscal and Management Control Board’s April 2017 strategic plan, including preparing an analysis of the system’s capacity needs, moving forward with a new automated fare collection system, developing a fleet and facilities plan, and stabilizing the operating budget.

The report said the MBTA is “behind schedule” on improving rider accessibility and increasing capital spending. To meet its five-year goal of spending $8 billion on capital projects, the T needs to spend an average of $1.6 billion annually between 2019 and 2023; the T averaged $767 million in spending over the previous five years.

The report said the T has missed its goals on improving rider accessibility, implementing climate change resiliency, and developing a solid cost figure for bringing the system into a state of good repair.

While the general tone of the report, the first of what are expected to be yearly evaluations, was generally positive, officials from the outside organizations raised some concerns about issues not included in the strategic plan. One concern was the many ongoing studies of future service options that have no pricetag attached to them.

“There’s a lot of planning going on at the T, but one of the things that is not being planned is finances – how to pay for it,” said James Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Another area of concern is visible improvements that consumers can actually see. The control board’s fourth annual report, issued in December, said riders should be seeing signs of visible improvement in the system this year. “We expect 2019 to be a turning point during which customers see results from the last three years of effort,” the T’s annual report said.

But the outside organizations questioned whether that will happen. “Breakdowns and delays in service are still common, which is especially problematic because the MBTA is now competing for riders who have numerous transportation options. As the MBTA continues to plan for long-term success in 2040 and beyond, it is important to prioritize short-term investments that improve the customer experience,” the accountability report said.

Staci Rubin, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said riders have been patient but their patience is starting to run thin. “It’s really time for customers to start experiencing improvements,” she said.

T ridership is already down from previous years, and the transit authority is seeking a 6.3 percent average fare increase that is expected to result in another loss of passengers. Rooney said the trendlines are not good when matched up against the area’s rapid population and job growth and dramatic expansion at Logan International Airport.

“You’re wondering why we’re No. 1 in congestion?” he asked. “Just do the math.”

Rooney, a former MBTA general manager himself, applauded the work done so far by the control board, which was established in the wake of the 2015 winter that crippled the MBTA system. But Rooney warned that oversight bodies formed at times of crisis often get bogged down when the emergency is over. He noted the board and most of T management spend one day a week meeting together.

“We need to create a board that assumes more traditional board responsibilities and return to a strong general manager model,” Rooney said. “You’re managing up way too much.”

Read this article at Commonwealthmagazine.org.