Member of the reality-based community of progressive (not anonymous) Massachusetts blogs
In a full, regular session CM Bernie Lynch made his case for what he views as the most fiscally prudent way forward, taking into account the $6.4Million the Commonwealth has certified as Free Cash. The CM presented a detailed slide presentation in an effort to convince a majority of the City Council to support his fiscal sensibilities. Your mileage may vary, but Lowell is doing swell on so many fronts. Shouldn’t we just follow along?
A lazy man may say “Yes.” But, we have a Plan E Charter and our Council cannot, in good faith, simply roll over should this manager, or any manager, wink. Fortunately, CM Lynch presents a very solid case for the fine shape we are in. That fact makes it that much tougher to recklessly bat at his logic.
Below we find two of Lynch’s favorite metrics: Cash Reserves & Excess Levy Capacity
These metrics are measures of frugality. We don’t blow our budget and we don’t, contrary to popular myth, tax Lowellelians to death. (The last point drives UTL President Paul Georges nuts.) The take away here is that it is good to build up a rainy day fund, while concurrently leaving money in folks pockets. Some may argue that raising taxes EVER is a torrential downpour. They are full of crap, imho. Next…
It’s great having a writer and former reporter of Jen Myers’ caliber working for the city. Her posts at Room 50 are always a joy to read, and her corresponding photography slideshows a big bonus. Check out her latest post on the visit to our city by finance professionals from the Chinese Ministry of Finance, here to see how we do things.
On Friday morning City Hall welcomed a delegation of 20 finance professionals from the Chinese Ministry of Finance, eager to learn the ins and outs of the City of Lowell’s budget process and successful financial management policies.
The group, which included 16 Supervision Commissioners from the Office of the Ministry of Finance, from cities ranging from Sichuan (population 87 million) to the “small” city of Dalian (6.1 million), began their morning with a tour of the City Council Chamber and brief introduction to the city’s Plan E government. They were quite astonished to learn Lowell was the first place in the world to utilize telephone numbers.
They then enjoyed a two-hour budget discussion with City Manager Bernie Lynch in the Mayor’s Reception Room.
There were some really amusing moments, apparently:
His Chinese visitors were surprised by the level of public input and participation in the budget process, but were much more stunned to hear the population of Lowell is only 106,000.
“You mean 106 million?” asked one of the delegates.
“No, 106,000,” answered Lynch.
“Oh, you are a very small town,” responded the Chinese visitor, astonished to learn Lowell is the fourth largest city in Massachusetts.
Go check out the full post. It’s great to have an inside eye on some of the really cool things that happen in our city government.
Poor Gov. Chris Christie. Coming off an awful Republican convention in which he was a keynote, Standard and Poor’s “lowered its credit outlook for New Jersey from stable to negative.” Why so? (Bold mine.)
While Standard & Poor’s did not change the state’s AA- rating — one of the worst among the states — it warned the more drastic step of a lower rating loomed if Christie’s nearly 8 percent growth in revenue failed to materialize.
“We revised the outlook to reflect our view of the risk of revenue assumptions we view as optimistic, continued reliance on one-time measures to offset revenue shortfalls, and longer-term growing expenditure pressures,” John Sugden, a credit analyst for Standard & Poor’s, said.
Christie has spent much of the year boasting of a “Jersey Comeback” — an assertion that has fizzled in recent months as state revenue has fallen short of expectations, unemployment has risen and foreclosures remain a drag on the real estate market.
What’s Christie’s risky revenue assumption? That cutting taxes will increase the state’s revenues! The Governor’s response to S&P? Double down!
Unswayed by the latest batch of economic news, Christie repeated his call for an income tax cut at an appearance in Bergen County and said it was a “joke” that Democrats had not yet delivered the cut.
I hate having to state the obvious, but…trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Cutting taxes does not increase revenues. It decreases revenues. If I get a pay cut at work, I don’t take in more money than I did before the cut.
Why is basic math so hard for conservatives to understand? Look, we can disagree, and do, about what government should be involved in and how much it should spend. But can we, please, just agree on basic freaking addition and subtraction? George H.W. Bush called Reagan’s supply-side plans “voodoo economics” over thirty years ago - he was right then, and he’s still right. Tax cuts have slashed revenues in states who have implemented them, and destroyed our national budgets. Conservatives complain about deficits but make them worse…the Bush tax cuts account for a very large percent of our deficit right now, along with his war bill, and the severe downturn he left behind him.
If I was a more cynical sort, I’d say that most trickle-down adherents actually know that what they peddle is a crock of snake oil, but they inflict the country with this policy anyway so that when the deficit inevitably balloons, they can slash the budget in places that will hurt the worst off in our country - that they really, underneath it all, mean “trickle-UP” - cutting taxes for the wealthy so their buddies can get even more gawd-awfully rich and the gap between them and the rest of us gets wider.
And a number of conservatives do know this, and do do this, aka the Norquist “drown it in a bathtub” admission. But I believe the real core of the Republican party, especially its voters, are merely obsessed with “supply-side economics” in a religious way, clinging to trickle-down dogma. You know, like when you see an interview with Tom Cruise, and the host tries to talk about the science of mental health, and Tom Cruise bounces up and down on the couch in denial that mental disease even exists, because his crazy ass religion tells him so. You can try to get him to stop bouncing and listen to the empirical evidence, but dogma prevents him from hearing you.
Well, that’s most trickle-down adherents for you. They keep bouncing, because if they stop and actually think logically, never mind view and digest the evidence against it, it would throw their entire worldview upside down, and that is a very uncomfortable place to be.
(Article via dkos.)
LowellStat Program Awarded Community Innovation Challenge Grant
April 2, 2012 by Office of the City Manager
April 4, 2012
Congrats to Data Nerds Everywhere
by Lynne at 11:32 am.
City wins recognition, and money, for data analysis
Posted by sunthecolumn on August 22nd, 2012
Below the fold, you will find the “whistle blower’s” letter. This letter set the whole fiasco around the City’s Parking Division ablaze. Though I find the letter petty in it’s tone and tenor, the City owes the author it’s thanks. I disagree with those that propose that the City “never” would have caught up with this. But, it is certain that this letter advanced the timeline by a month or two. Even with all the headaches and grandstanding, sometimes we have to take the bitter medicine. If you go to Gerry Nutter’s blog, you can link to the full report by the City Auditor. Note: The Auditor has determined the amount of funds missing. Further, it is clear that the problem was stopped in 2011 and was not ongoing, as the most breathy of our Councilors have floated.
The letter below puts to rest some of the more unhinged accusations that have been shoveled into the public square. You, reader, may think that the worst of the conspiracy theories are held only by those Bernie Bashers that populate the “Downtown Mob.” Fortunately, the misinformed accusation that a cover up was undertaken is proved false by the Whistle Blower’s letter. However, I still find those determined to believe the CM is doomed by this event and the ax will soon fall, once the “truth” comes out. :v\
(h/t Joe Smith)
Attachment “T” is apparently the “dime dropped” that exposed this situation. That document includes excerpts from the FY 2013 budget. Since the budget was not released until June, it further supports your contention that neither the City Manager nor the Mayor had this input prior to June, and most likely became aware of it along with the other councilors and news media as listed in the distribution on or about June 12th.
Nothing brings out the community like a neighborhood disaster.
A backup of traffic, and a lot of sirens going by, got me to leave my TV (where I was actually keenly interested in one of the last new episodes of “The Closer”) to go see what was up. A neighbor pointed to the twilight sky, where a column of smoke was rising. Heart in my throat hoping it wasn’t some family’s house, or apartment, I headed down the street. Admittedly, I was not being an intrepid reporter, and didn’t take my smartphone with me for vid or photo or tweeting, but in a way, I was more a neighbor in this case than a blogger.
Hiking down Main St (Lincoln was seriously backed up both ways by rubbernecking and street cutoffs), I think every single neighbor was outside trying to make out what was going on. I gleamed some rumors and such from people I passed, but largely what I was told turned out to be actually correct according to the Sun. It was a commercial storage shed, not a residence, and that gave me some relief.
It was a pretty tough looking fire, where something inside there was burning pretty bad. Even once they seemed to have some control, the fire kept coming back, only to be doused again, and then back.
Our city’s finest did a great job protecting nearby property. At one point I saw a few adjacent tree limbs on fire, and given how dry our state is right now (if my lawn is any indication), that could have spelled disaster. Luckily no homes were in danger.
Over and over in my head, I thanked the stars I live in a state, and city, that believes in the Common Good, and not that we’re all on our own. Unlike some states and counties, we have striven not to gut our fire and police services, nor to force families to watch their homes burn to the ground with their pets inside for forgetting to pay a specific fee. Examples of why paying for our Common Good should not be voluntary or optional. Whether a $75 fee forgotten or not paid (or not affordable), or a corporation or very wealthy person paying zero dollars in taxes, it amounts to the same thing.
We’re all in this country together, and in many things, we’re better together than apart, and we should not punish the good people willing to donate to charity or service organizations, but consider it one’s duty as a citizen to pay into the pot so that we can all flourish. After all, a healthy society is actually better for even the most fortunate among us, in the end.
And above all, I’m grateful for the fact there are some brave people out there willing to put themselves in danger to help others. Grateful to the firefighters who are here to protect us, whether it’s a non-occupied commercial building, or a home where lives need saving. Thanks guys.
Update: City Council / Budget Hearing 3
Please start of by reading Gerry Nutter’s diary about last night. I don’t agree with his summation of the evening, but he does well laying out the nuts and bolts of the transactions.
Generally, I think the City Manager put forward a good budget. If my taxes go up 2-3 bucks a month, so be it. I’ll give the money, but my expectation is for greater value. If we are funding more summer recreational programs, make the most of it. If we are investing in capital improvement, don’t buy bandaids for buildings. Fix them, properly, so we don’t make the same repairs again in 3-5 years. Ensure the Lowell Stat program impresses it’s critics.
So, it makes sense to me if a majority cohort of Councilors; Broderick, Lorrey, Martin, Murphy & Nuon, effectively support the CM’s budget. They are seeing a “bang for the buck.”
With the CM’s budget buffered by the majority, four Councilors were presented a golden opportunity to “get caught trying.” Meaning, they were appealing to a specific voting block that wanted to see a 0% tax increase. To be fair, the majority of the Council was, imo, also playing politics. The votes to protect overtime and raises is done with election day votes in mind. YES! The city workers are due raises and just about any cop would rather have more OT, than a couple new cops on the force. That is obvious, in my eyes. It is also a smart political play to affirm that in the budget.
Let me hit a few points:
- Sup’t Lavallee made a great point. When cops are called in to work, they are due a 4 hour minimum. If they are on duty and their shift is extended, then it is done on an hourly basis. The Sup’t stated that it is more efficient to use OT around shift changes. This comes into play in the downtown when the bars close, for example.
- C.Elliott deserves some props. In the past, he attempted across the board cuts. In doing so, he was criticized for not seeking specific cuts. This budget cycle, he has been very specific. Not sure why he is honing in on what he has, like cost of living adjustments for workers, but he has responded to his critics in a thoughtful way. There is political gain in his tact. There is also, peril. He played his cards by his own rules. I don’t agree with his positions, but he has stuck his neck out.
- C.Mendonca stated early on, that he would seek to trim the budget. To know Joe is to understand his votes, last night. He is fiscally conservative. He is not a poser. That was clear when, having proposed and supported cuts throughout the night, he did not support the whack at the snow and ice budget. He knew it was merely kicking the can down the road. That is not a sound fiscal practice.
- Props to C.Broderick for walking back the talking points spouted by C.Elliott & C.Kennedy. You’d think the economy was on the verge of collapse or that City Hall was operated by nitwits, if you sucked up the rhetoric of Elliott and Kennedy. Broderick calmly explained the logic or legal footing for the proposal at hand. He did not gloss over or cheerlead the manager’s budget. He just presented a cool, matter of fact validation. C.Martin gets honorable mention here. Martin didn’t step in often, but when he did …. . Or, as one observer put it, “Billy brought his club.”
All in all, we are seeing how they make the sausage. For the mouth breathers that want to shrink government, so they can drown it in a bathtub, details are unrewarding. For those of us that feel government is our imperfect approach to propelling all of us forward, together; seeing the beatiful imperfections is compelling.
Or, as Cliff Krieger says, “There is no free lunch.”
You may recognize the graph I took the liberty of modifying. I started with a graph from the City Manager’s Budget Proposal. (h/t Gerry Nutter) If you click through, you will see the original graph on Page 17.
I took the liberty of “painting in” lines that show the tenure of the past City Managers: Richard Johnson (1991-1995), Brian Martin (1995-1999), John Cox (1999-2006) & Bernard Lynch (2006-Present). The BLACK verticle lines approximate each change in the Manager’s position. The YELLOW verticle lines approximate 1 year after a change because I am assuming the previous City Manager crafted the budget his successor worked with. The dollar value is the amount the average single family household tax increased in Lowell (the BLUE line) over the tenure of each City Manager.
Note: The annual demarcations occur mid-year, as the budget does. I’m not sure exactly what months any of the City Manager changes occured. Likely, not at mid-year. I think Lynch came in August 2006.
Lastly, the dollar figures are interpolated from the graph. I doubt CM Lynch adjusted 1990’s dollars for inflation. Thus, not to pick on Richard Johnson, we should think that “$500″ is a little heavier in today’s dollars.
Anyways, we are a City with “Taxes on the Brain.” For some it is a fetish. Others, an addiction. For several, it is a hackneyed talking point, plodded out on Local Cable and the Blog of Record to make political hay for the first two groups. For most of us, it is just a pain in the ass that we accept as the necessary cost of having the best City in the Commonwealth.
Update below the (more…)
Not so long ago, in a galaxy right here at home, Lowell had the Massachusetts Department of Revenue breathing down its neck, had gobbled up all its free cash and then some, and had what was effectively a structural deficit. When City Manager Lynch was hired, we were treading water near a very dangerous whirlpool. These budgets were the brainchild of the previous CM and rubberstamped by previous Councils - likely because the budgets were so obfuscated it was hard to tell what you were voting for.
That’s what makes Councilor Rodney Elliot’s comments at the meeting this week that Lynch is “addicted to taxes” so utterly ridiculous. Far from showcasing himself as the fiscal watchdog, Elliot seems to just be fiscally forgetful - and completely blind.
Let’s remember that the property tax increases of the last few years, while not zero, were NOT increased as high as they could have been (the levy limit, and beyond) like so many other struggling communities. Let’s also recall that the mere annual costs of doing business, and delivering the same level of service, go up, not down, and that the level of local aid has been - to say the least - a little rough, despite the state holding the line as best they could. Let’s also take a look at the charts that show the slow closing of the structural deficit, to a point where a negative balance in our free cash account has gone to a pretty impressive positive. Let’s also not forget that our cost of borrowing money has gone down because our fiscal house was put in order, with ratings increases for muni bonds saving us an awful lot of money.
All that could not have been accomplished by ZERO tax increases. Empty rhetoric notwithstanding.
Elliot is ridiculous and his math is sketchy. He constantly pretends he gives a crap about budgets but really, he’s just knee-jerk-reflexively anti-tax no matter the circumstance. That sort of leadership we could live without. I’d say we’re in damn good shape if Lynch is easing off the rather moderate tax increases of the last 5 years. Our budgets are clearer and better defined, and our free cash is once again where it should be. We here in Lowell are set up for a bright future, and if all Elliot can say is “I’ll believe it when I see it” because Lynch’s budget numbers cause him to sputter to come up with a way to be negative, well, he was on the Council back in the bad old days of structural deficits and I don’t remember him being quite so hard hitting back then.
I for one am glad our property taxes have been responsibly managed, that the city keeps on finding ways to become as efficient as possible, and that this year, the property tax increase will be minuscule. But let’s face it, a few tens of dollars extra per quarter for solving our budgetary near-crisis was a small price to pay for sitting pretty in the catbird seat right now. Unlike some people, I have a longer memory and can appreciate where we’re going by looking at where we’ve been before.
Kudos to the city administration for all the hard work - I know it’s a thankless job, but some of us at least understand what you’ve accomplished.
I am totally sorrowful in having to ask this question. I really am. You all know how I like Senator Eileen Donoghue. But what I want to know is, is she going all Beacon-Hill on us? Is she now living in the Beacon Hill bubble, espousing Beacon Hill talking points, instead of offering real solutions? Because that’s what it sounded like during her March 6th appearance on WCAP where she talked about the MBTA and its chronic budget woes (begins at the 6:36 mark).
This has been bugging me for days but I finally have time to write it all out.
Teddy Panos puts the question to Donoghue, about an idea being floated by a business group that the legislature should tap into the rainy day fund to help the MBTA budget this year. While I agree with the first part of Eileen’s response, she said some things that make me very angry. Because she is smart enough to do basic math, in my opinion. Let’s start with the answer to the specific rainy day question:
I don’t really think it’s a great idea, it’s a short term fix. I don’t think the MBTA is an emergency or a one-time thing, it’s a chronic problem with the MBTA, and you still have to fix the problem.
She’s totally right, here. This isn’t just a chronic problem, it’s been a decade-long chronic problem, with the can kicked down the road again, and again. However, where she and I part ways is that she appears to be relying on pat Beacon Hill “conventional wisdom.” Her next comments:
…you still have to fix the problem. And they just seem incapable of doing it. …One of the things, when they reorganized and changed…you know, forward funding for the MBTA, over ten years ago, I think the whole notion was to give the Board authority; they also took on some debt, but give them authority to start making…system-wide changes. And that doesn’t seem to have happened. So now when the MBTA comes up short for - and again, what could be their lack of action in making real important revisions to the way they run the system - they just turn to the legislature, put out their hand, and say “give us more money.”
I think until…we hear from the MBTA, from their Board how they’re going to fix this, what kind of changes they’ve implemented, I don’t think continuing to pour money when they come up short is the solution.
God, am I disappointed in our state Senator! Donoghue even mentions the forward funding and Big Dig debt problems, but glosses over them in order to blame the Board for not coming up with a miracle solution that doesn’t involve steep, steep cuts in services or huge rate increases, or both.
Pathetic, totally Beacon-Hill pass-the-buck bullshit.
Let’s review the history of the MBTA. Shall we? In the Wiki article, we have a nice outline of what happened to the MBTA in the year 2000:
A turning point in funding occurred in 2000. Prior to July 1, 2000, the MBTA was reimbursed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all costs above revenue collected (net cost of service). Beginning on that date, the T was granted a dedicated revenue stream consisting of amounts assessed on served cities and towns, along with a dedicated 20% portion of the 5% state sales tax. The MBTA now must live within this “forward funding” budget.
The Commonwealth assigned to the MBTA responsibility for increasing public transit to compensate for increased automobile pollution from the Big Dig. The T submerged a nearby portion of the Green Line and rebuilt Haymarket and North Stations during Big Dig construction. However, these projects have strained the MBTA’s limited resources, since the Big Dig project did not include funding for these improvements.
Let me repeat:
Prior to July 1, 2000, the MBTA was reimbursed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all costs above revenue collected (net cost of service).
OK, so the MTBA has fares, advertising revenue, station-naming-rights, etc, just to name some of its incoming revenue. Let’s call that amount “Bob.” Bob is limited, in that the ad and naming rights can only fetch so much (as much as the market will bear), and, if you want to keep fares affordable (and we had one of the most affordable public transit systems in the nation, and surprise! the one with the most ridership, too) you have a limit to what you can charge for fares. Poorer people can’t pay a lot of money to move around, even though moving around is key to finding and holding jobs.
If operating and capital investment costs are Bob + 20% (a made up number, BTW, for illustration purposes), that means that that extra 20% in cost is a shortfall in the MBTA’s budget. Got that math in your head? OK. So prior to 2000, that 20% shortfall was made up for in the general budget of the state (or federal or local, on some projects). This is based on the premise that public transit is a net common good, and we should encourage it and keep it affordable. It takes cars off the road (ask the Mr. how he commutes every day), it lowers traffic congestion, our carbon emissions, and gives the working class choices as to how many places they can live and work, a very important component in building economic equality.
All right. Let’s move on to the post-2000 world of the dumb idea of forward funding. We now have a fixed amount for the shortfall after revenues are collected from fares and ads and such. Not only is this a fixed percentage of the sales tax along with the assessment from served towns, but it is the fixed percent of a tax which, particularly in downturns like the one we’ve just been through, means fluctuating revenue for operating costs even while they are trying to serve pretty much the same, or even in some cases, more riders. After all, in a downturn, people might choose to get rid of the cost of an automobile and opt for public transit.
All of this was happening exactly while the MBTA was handed a huge debt load for expenses obligated by the Big Dig. (It’s a complicated history, where the MBTA became obligated to make capital improvements in order to increase ridership, so they could “offset” the increase in auto traffic due to the highway expansion. This was to qualify for a large chunk of federal money, and was set up prior to “forward funding” in 2000.)
Once forward funding comes in, you have created an agency which, if it had complete control over its capital investments, would choose only those investments that paid for themselves. After forward funding, the state’s credit is no longer available to the MBTA. It has to float bonds on its own credit. Credit is given to you when you can prove to a credit agency that you have the means to pay a loan back. In the state’s case this is due to being able to levy taxes. In the MBTA’s case it is due to the ability to raise rates (though that is a rather difficult process) and other fees, or building a capital project that increases its ridership, and hence its revenues.
But due, in large part, to its previous obligation (that the Big Dig imposed on it) and also political pressure, a capital improvement by the MBTA might wind up not paying for itself. No where is this demonstrated better than with the Greenbush south shore expansion.
A project like Greenbush flies in the face of forward funding. South Shore politicians wanted it, and wanted it bad, and it might have been been a great idea and a desirable project from a long term economic development view - over the next couple of decades, more development might be possible along its corridor, increasing jobs and housing and maybe, eventually, ridership. However, from the MBTA’s forward funding standpoint, it’s a dismal failure. According to the above-linked Boston.com article:
Three years after the Greenbush train made its inaugural run, ridership on the $534 million commuter rail extension is far below the MBTA’s projections, and those who do take it are more likely to be former passengers of the T’s own commuter boats than motorists lured away from the South Shore’s congested highways.
Last week, according to the T, an average of 2,133 weekday customers rode the line toward Boston, about half the 4,200 riders the transit agency had expected within three to five years of opening Greenbush.
That is certainly not paying for itself.
If you’re going to force an agency to forward fund, then you cannot dictate where it decides to put its capital investments. Even if it’s politically popular to add track or stations in your neighborhood, doesn’t mean the MBTA will be able to afford it in a forward funding scenario. And if the MBTA does decide on a station in your neighborhood, you shouldn’t force it - by political pressure - to make it some kind of intermodal economic-development extravaganza if the MBTA doesn’t think it will make its investment back. And yet, this is what is happening.
If we as a Commonwealth want to think beyond what will make the MBTA its investments back, then we need to invest extra public monies to its capital investments when those costs go beyond the scope of the MBTA’s forward funded budget. End of story.
Of course, the MBTA might be able to survive in a forward funding, willy-nilly-capital-investment world if it decided to go with enormous rate increases…but that has the potential to damage the ability for much its ridership to use the transit system. Thereby decreasing ridership, and the main revenue source of the MBTA. So, that would be kind of stupid. Also deeply unpopular.
So now the MBTA is obligated to take on more debt for capital improvements (improvements, you could argue, that were needed and desired, but we should have thought about how to pay for them first), on top of what is essentially a capped revenue from public sources.
So what the hell miracle solution is the frapping MBTA Board supposed to come up with? Are they supposed to apply bloody pixie dust to the thorny problems dropped on the MBTA by the legislature?? What solution is there other than the areas they have control over?? Which would be, huge rate increases and huge service cuts. Neither of which is good for the Commonwealth.
The state legislature, aka Beacon Hill, are a bunch of whiny asshole babies over this issue. They caused this problem in several ways, and now that the structural budget problems have come to a head for the MBTA, they’re like, “they need to stop coming to us with their hand out.” And yet the solutions floated, like a big jump in fares, or stopping its likely-revenue-losing weekend service, are not only wicked unpopular with the public (duh) but unacceptable to the politicians who have to take responsibility for a pissed off public!
What other math works, other than “we need to increase revenue by increasing fares, or decrease services drastically”??
I can tell you one thing. The MBTA, while being shite at its own PR and making huge gaffs in that arena, is one of the leanest-run public organizations out there. I dare anyone to find more than a piddling inconsequential amount of “fat” in the way they run the public transit system that millions rely on.
What miracle of “revisions” to the system can possibly fracking fix this?
Apparently, if you buy into the Beacon Hill conventional wisdom, it’s someone else’s miracle to produce. Luckily, being smarter and more informed than the average Beacon Hill bubblehead, I have some ideas.
My solution may not resolve the existing debt burden problem (personally, I think the legislature should grow up and help dig the MBTA out of the hole the legislature dug for them). But…IF they want to continue with the forward funding model for the MBTA (I’m not convinced ditching it would be a bad idea but there are reasons to think it could work) then the legislature needs to change the law to ensure that forward funding be limited to being spent on operating costs, maintenance, and pay-for-themselves MBTA-driven capital improvements (ie keep the politicians from meddling and adding scope to them). If the politicians want a project akin to the operating-at-a-loss Greenbush expansion, something that is not projected to pay for itself in a reasonable timeframe, but which is desired for other reasons like expanding economic opportunities, access for underserved neighborhoods, etc, then that should be paid for outside of the MBTA’s forward funding obligations.
The MBTA, under forward funding, should not have to consider how a project benefits a community, the environment, or traffic congestion. Remember, any side-benefits that the MBTA can create by its very existence don’t show up as credits on the forward-funding balance sheet - the MBTA just get the costs. Communities, the state, citizens, we might see benefits, but the MBTA in many of these projects only sees some return.
Under forward funding, the MBTA’s only consideration should be: can it pay for its own loan on a given project? That is the way that forward funding works. By putting such outside considerations and obligations upon the MBTA so that it winds up paying for projects of more benefit to other entities other than itself, you are asking it to do too much with the fixed amount of money it can produce and borrow. The legislature is bankrupting the MBTA with the obligations it put on it prior to 2000, and the pressure for big, giant, baby-kissing sorts of expansions now. You cannot have it both ways, Beacon Hill. Either you let the MBTA decide on all the expansions it will undertake under forward funding (keeping revenue generation and budget in mind) even if those projects aren’t good for ribbon cuttings or sucking up to your electorate…or pay for the capital investments in the system some other way.
The alternative is to trap the MBTA between a rock and a hard place, and then blame them when they can’t extract themselves. Which I guess is where we find ourselves. I just thought that Senator Donoghue was a lot better than your regular Beacon Hill insider. But it’s not too late for her to change her approach to this complex problem to something a little more nuanced than “I blame the MBTA Board for not performing miracles.”
Serious problems call for serious leadership. That’s all I’m sayin’.
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