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Chamber voices concerns on MBTA's revised long-term capital plan

On May 13th the Chamber submitted the following letter to the Fiscal and Management Control Board regarding the MBTA's long-term capital plan:

Dear Fiscal and Management Control Board (FMCB) members:

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and our 1,300-plus business members representing hundreds of thousands of employees and commuters, have made transportation a top policy priority, and we believe that the current state of affairs and performance of our critical public transportation system demands the state’s absolute best efforts to fix it. With this in mind, I am writing today to ask the board to reject the MBTA management’s decision to further delay the five-year Capital Investment Plan, and instead call for bolder solutions.

According to the 2015 enabling language, the FMCB is charged with providing a “safe, reliable and sustainable transit system.” With several news stories in recent weeks announcing major MBTA project delays and a project execution crisis, the FMCB today faces a crucial decision. You can accept the status quo performance that continues to result in both service and capital project delays, a failing regional transportation system, and the worst congestion in the nation. Or, you can aggressively demand improvements and ensure the promises of a world class public transportation system.

In its December 2018 annual report, the FMCB stated that 2019 is expected “to be a turning point during which customers see results.” Now, less than six months after that report, the MBTA has announced a series of delays that threaten to stall progress, alter the long-term vision of the MBTA’s own strategic plan, and leave customers with a system that falls desperately short of their needs.

Project issues include:

  • The Orange Line car procurement faces a second delay, casting doubt that the new fleet will be in service by 2023.
  • The federally mandated safety system of Positive Train Control (PTC) is behind schedule due to an equipment procurement issue, and it is now unlikely the T will be able to meet its already extended deadline for 2020 completion.
  • The installation of a new automated fair collection system (AFC 2.0) will not meet its deadline and the new system and the associated service improvements will not happen by 2021 as scheduled.

The most concerning issue, however, is last week’s announcement from the new MBTA general manager Steve Poftak that the T’s Capital Investment Program is infeasible to execute as scheduled. In short, riders will continue to endure unreliable service for at least the next five years because the entire program to invest in the existing infrastructure of the T will be delayed.

The GM should be lauded for making a review of the Authority’s capital spending and execution capacity his first priority, but the result of that review was nonetheless disappointing – essentially waving the white flag and declaring a capacity emergency.

The current MBTA administration did not create the crisis at the MBTA. Indeed, the Governor’s Special Panel to Review the MBTA, formed in 2015, found bottlenecked project delivery, ineffective workplace practices, a shortsighted expansion strategy, and organizational instability. We applaud the FMCB and Secretary Pollack for their good work to improve operations to-date.

But now – nearly four years after the panel’s findings – asking riders, the business community, the Legislature, and residents for more patience and to deal with more delays should not be an option. Your customers want and deserve better.

We urge the FMCB to respond immediately that these delays are not acceptable and to direct the General Manager to offer alternatives within 30 days that will keep the Capital Investment Program on schedule. While we can support the recommendations to hire a capital programs chief, additional capital program staff, and to boost training and staffing for the engineering and maintenance departments, we also urge you to require bolder, confidence-inspiring approaches, including:

  • Immediate use of private sector project management and engineering firms to supplement existing MBTA staff on key projects while the in-house capacity is strengthened per the general manager’s recommendations.
  • Calling upon the resources and expertise of colleagues in agencies like Massport and MWRA for input from their work to address and/or avoid capacity and performance issues.
  • Or, if the situation is as bad as it appears from the steady stream of red-flag announcements, and there are no other options for timely project delivery, the FMCB should consider whether the capital project delivery function belongs within the T organization. The board should determine if it is instead necessary to create a professional capital infrastructure projects organization similar to the school building authority. The FMCB should ask whether they are confident that adding 80 more bodies to an underperforming unit is the right move.

As you know, we have created a statewide business coalition to bring the business community to the table for creating solutions to our Commonwealth’s need for better transportation systems. This letter expresses only the opinion of the Chamber, though I can assure you that the coalition stands ready to work with you. On this subject of human resource capacity, we have already uncovered several examples of strategic and comprehensive programs in transportation agencies across the country that we would be willing to share, discuss, and help implement.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and I am hopeful you will embrace this call for bolder action. This decision has long-term implications for the MBTA, for residents and riders, and for the long-term economic health of our region.


James Rooney

President & CEO