Re-thinking how we fund Baker’s transit agency

Gov. Charlie Baker and his team are taking heat this week from normally friendly quarters over a familiar, but suddenly more urgent problem: the MBTA. Last Tuesday’s derailment at JFK-UMass station underscored the fragile nature of our region’s transit system. The train that careened off the tracks (thankfully at a relatively low speed) caused a cascade of trouble that persisted well into this week. The impact wiped out a key signal “bungalow” and the equipment inside. There is still no solid time frame for when the signal system will be back up and running and so, for now, T riders must build in at least an extra 20 minutes into their commute.

That may not seem like a huge burden in terms of time. But, cumulatively, it adds up. Time is money.

Which is why more political leaders— including, for the first time this week, Mayor Walsh – are suggesting that the T freeze its planned fare increase — an average 5.8 percent hike — that is set to kick in next month.

Baker and his team say ‘No way.’

“I get the frustration,” Baker told reporters while also waving off any possibility of a fare freeze. “People are working around the clock to deal with the issues on the Red Line. But there’s a process here, and that process has a lot of integrity and I believe in it,” he said.

This “damn-the torpedoes” position is consistent and, from team Baker’s vantage point, the responsible thing to do. For all the apparent outrage over the T’s performance, there has been no apparent MBTA-related hit to the governor’s popularity. He won a landslide victory last year. He nearly won a plurality in the city of Boston against a Democrat whose platform included raising new revenues to pay for better public transportation.

The only real exposure for Baker will be if his allies in government— including Walsh and the Beacon Hill Dems who typically accommodate Baker’s “moderate” approach — start to unhitch themselves to Baker’s wagon in a vocal way.

Councillors Wu and Campbell and Sen. Collins have been outspoken in calling for a change in strategy. And, they’re right. The goverrnor’s “fix-it-first” approach to managing the transit system might fly in a backwater, Rust Belt city with negative growth potential. But in one of the nation’s hubs of innovation being fueled by a significant and growing population bump, it’s untenable.

This debate cannot just be about the metrics and equity of a one-time fare increase. The conversation needs to be about the very manner in which our state funds the MBTA. Baker has told reporters that he does not support a fare freeze given that taxpayers who do not use the system already fund part of it, according to the State House News Service. That’s a myopic view of a regional transportation system that includes the capital city of New England.

It’s time for the governor, his transportation team, and the Legislature to huddle up and re-think how this transit system can be funded going forward. Yes, there are large parts of the state that aren’t included in the MBTA footprint and can — and will— complain about being tethered to the capital city’s increasingly costly and outdated system.

But this Commonwealth’s future is inexorably tied to Boston’s growth and success. A crippled subway system is an existential threat to the prosperity of the whole state. Relying on periodic fare hikes and piecemeal improvements is woefully insufficient. And so is the incrementalist, status-quo shoulder shrugs of the Baker administration.

– Bill Forry