Endless Safety Woes Bring de facto Receivership to MBTA
Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that he welcomes a nearly unprecedented safety investigation the Federal Transit Administration will launch into the MBTA, an agency under the governor's watch.
In an interview where he defended his administration's funding and management of the T, Baker told WBUR's "Radio Boston" that he expects the FTA's involvement will bring "national knowledge" to the MBTA's safety policies and procedures.
It's not yet clear where the FTA's investigation will land or what actions the federal agency will pursue after it takes a closer look at the MBTA, where a series of recent crashes, derailments and malfunctions -- some which were fatal -- have drawn heightened scrutiny.
"What the FTA will bring, among other things, is a lot of information and a lot of knowledge about what the rest of the country does and how other systems manage their older lines and their older units," Baker said. "I think in the grand scheme of things, a focus on core operations and that sort of thing, especially with an organization that's actually seen a lot more than certainly anybody has at the T, is a good thing."
The governor said he does not expect that he will be personally involved too much with the federal probe, instead forecasting that the FTA will work with his deputies at the T, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Utilities.
Baker, who took office amid the disastrous winter of 2015 that saw shutdowns across the MBTA, said the system had been "wildly underinvested" for a "very long time." He touted his administration's efforts over the past seven-plus years to increase MBTA capital spending, which covers maintenance, modernization and expansions.
However, he did not touch upon the persistent operating budget gaps that have plagued the T and are set to erupt again as soon as next year. MBTA officials expect they will exhaust the final drops of remaining federal emergency aid and still fall hundreds of millions of dollars short of a balanced budget in fiscal year 2024.
In fiscal year 2014, the T spent about $600 million in capital dollars; by fiscal 2021, that figure had risen to roughly $1.9 billion.
"We've spent close to $5 billion since we took office, maybe even $6 (billion)," Baker said. "You just won't find any administration that's ever spent as much on investing in the core system as we have."
Asked if that investment was enough, Baker replied, "Well, we started with a backlog, a state of good repair number that was more like $12 or $14 (billion)."
"There's a limit to just how fast you can get dollars out the door to begin with," Baker said. "But more importantly, it's an old system, and because it's an old system, it has challenges. I think people have done a fairly significant amount of important work to fix many of those issues and to modernize the system."
How High the Mountain?
MBTA officials estimated in 2019 that it would cost more than $10 billion to address all maintenance and modernization needs across the system, the most recent such figure available.
Baker said much of the spending at the T during his tenure has focused on behind-the-scenes infrastructure such as tracks, signals and power systems. Pressed on whether he should have done anything differently, he replied, "I would argue we've been playing catch-up since we took office on the T."
"I've said to a bunch of people that I never expected to get much political benefit from where the T spent most of the money over the last seven years, and guess what, I didn't," Baker said. "The only real big political benefit we got was saving the Green Line Extension, which was basically dead when we took office, but part of the reason there was political benefit in that is because it was an expansion."
The FTA's safety management investigation of the MBTA will be only the second such action the federal agency has taken. A 2015 investigation of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority led to federal officials seizing control of subway safety oversight for more than three years.
Where the probe will ultimately land remains unknown, but it could prompt election year pressure on Beacon Hill to weigh transit investments or reforms that for years have failed to gain traction.
Apart from a House transportation tax bill that died in the Senate after COVID-19 hit, legislative leaders and Baker have shown no appetite for rethinking how Massachusetts funds the MBTA, which receives a designated portion of the state's sales tax revenue each year amounting to more than $1 billion as well as an annual transfer typically totaling $127 million.
image courtesy of Boston Fire Department