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After over an hour of details surrounding the $2 million loan order to purchase new parking kiosks, as well as improve some of Lowell’s current inventory, C.Kennedy made a motion to delay the vote by one week. The discussion, then, continued for about another hour more. Ultimately, the motion to delay was supported, 7-2, with C. Lorrey and C. Mendonca against.
Come tomorrow, over at LTC.org, we can all dive back in to the picayune of tonight’s exquisitely detailed waltz around the kiosks. Honestly, I partly jest. There was plenty of red meat for those of us that like concrete responses to valid questions. But, tonight, politics was in the air, so progress was waylayed.
It’s late, so I’m going to put down some quick notes and take a lucky stab at how this all plays out over the next week.
There seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, 2 unresolved issues: 1) the proposed parking along Father Morrissette Blvd 2) if the loan order should be approved before the bid documents are evaluated.
I was watching local news this morning and they had a segment on Governor Patrick’s and MassDOT’s new transportation plan (pdf). I think I owe the Governor a small apology as the things listed prominently as revenue sources for addressing the structural deficits, crumbing infrastructure, and needed transportation investments included MBTA fee hikes. I was all set to write a huffy blog post about that, and I will get to that in a minute, but it appears that the mention of MBTA fee increases is modest, if anything, in the actual report, so now I’m a little miffed at Channel 7 instead.
Since that early report, I have heard the Governor on WBUR on my way into work (audio not up yet) and read some online articles like on Boston.com and skimmed the revenue section of the report itself (as linked above). I have to say, the plan/report takes the situation pretty head on and has a very wide net in its revenue suggestions. And the report is not Boston-centric; although of course most of the public transit is in the Boston area, there is a call for a Boston-Springfield line (long overdue) and other projects. (more…)
Thanks to Corey S, I found my way onto a photo gallery on Facebook by the Lowell Historical Society. As a “nouveau townie” (let’s do away with blow-in, please), I was fascinated to see what Lowell looked like as it widened Pawtucket Blvd, built the Wang Towers and the Rourke bridge, and before the tear-down and rebuilding of large areas of downtown Lowell. This early-80s set of photos (donated anonymously) is a great walk down memory lane for some, and a fascinating look at old Lowell for those who have more recently made it their home.
In other great Lowellcentric things to browse on a Sunday afternoon, I again came across the Rourke Bridge replacement study website, which has lots and lots of great information on the public meetings, studies that have been done, and more. As project websites go, it’s a really good one. If you, like me, missed the public meetings, I highly recommend reading through some of the material!
A post on Facebook by our frequent commenter, Joe S, about the public meeting on the Rourke Bridge, caught my attention, and I got permission to reprint it here. I’ve put it in with minor edits.
Rourke Bridge meeting was confined to the bridge only (area impact subject of next meeting). The team used models to project the need as of 2035 (hopefully well after bridge is built). Several options on location evaluated, one being to tear down the temp bridge and leave it at that (rejected). Build options were for locations and size.
The location options were a) at the present bridge, b) slightly upriver to connect to Old Ferry Road by crossing the river at an angle, c) downriver at an unspecified location and d) upriver in the North Chelmsford area to connect route 40.
For size, it was [proposed] 2-lane, 4-lane and 6-lane. The 2-lane is too small, the 6-lane is overkill and the 4-lane (likely selected) is good with plenty of margin. Much of the following discussion related to impact on the Pawtucketville neighborhood (concern that a better bridge would increase local traffic), and surprisingly some residents seemed to favor extending a highway through Pawtucketville (ugh!)… Although not concluded at the meeting, I suspect the eventual answer will be a 4-lane bridge with pilings (someone wanted none) basically in the same location as the temporary bridge.
Best case that would be [built] in about 5 years. In the meantime, upgrades to surrounding streets and intersections will be the subject of the next meeting.
He also added that “the plan is to have 5-ft bike lanes on each side” for you biking enthusiasts (lookin’ at you Marianne!).
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’.
Outside of LHA appointment manufactured controversies and a vote to violate the flag rules of the United States on behalf of former City Councilors, tonight’s Council packet included a very pretty, and very ambitious Trolley Study report.
It’s better and more extensive a proposal than even I expected! The report proposes (and mind you, it’s an initial proposal, so lots of changes could happen between here and build out, if it happens at all) to have a trolley line from the Gallahger, through Hamilton Canal District to downtown, and using the existing LNHP track (which they use mostly as historic ambiance than moving people from place to place), the trolley would split and a small branch heads to Middlesex College, and the other down Father Morressette Blvd past University Ave Bridge, then down Fletcher to Broadway to UML’s South Campus. Other stops include the Inn & Conference Center, the Tsongas Arena, and LeLacheur Park, as well as existing locations such as Boott Cotton Mills and the Mogan Center. Follow me after the flip: (more…)
A constant priority of Lt. Governor Tim Murray, today I got a little announcement from the administration that the first of several replacement commuter rail trains that are efficient diesel-electric have been put into service in the commuter rail system:
Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray today joined commuter rail riders and state officials aboard a new diesel-electric locomotive on its inaugural ride from Worcester to Boston. The state-of-the-art diesel-electric locomotive is one of two new trains purchased from the Utah Transit Authority, and marks the first time in more than two decades that new locomotives will join the MBTA’s commuter rail fleet.
By employing new technology that makes the engines more fuel efficient and prevents unnecessary idling, the new locomotives will reduce nitrogen oxide levels by 20 tons per engine annually. Each locomotive in the existing fleet burns 228,000 gallons of fuel per year, resulting in the release of 241 tons of nitrogen oxide. These new locomotives will burn about 36,500 fewer gallons while generating more horsepower. The energy savings will be about $78,000 a year per locomotive.
In June 2010, the MassDOT Board of Directors approved the purchase of an additional 20 new diesel-electric locomotives from Motive Power, Inc. of Boise, Idaho at a cost of $114 million. The 20 new locomotives will be brought into service in 2013 to replace the 20 oldest units in the fleet.
Since the Mr. takes the commuter rail daily, which is not only great for avoiding traffic snarls, but keeps our personal gas consumption fairly low, commuter rail news like this is music to my ears…we can realize great savings and lower our dependence on foreign oil, as well as reduce the impact of global warming, AND create jobs in our nation, by continuing to do this. Win all around.
(A silly reference to the minor league baseball system.)
The Patrick administration is announcing that, for the first time in this state’s history, a state bond program is rated at triple A.
Governor Deval Patrick, Treasurer Timothy Cahill and Legislative leaders today announced that the Commonwealth’s Accelerated Bridge Program bonds have been awarded the highest possible credit rating by two major rating agencies. Both Moody’s (Aaa) and Standard & Poor’s (AAA) assigned the Program’s triple-A credit ratings.
Over the life of the Accelerated Bridge Program, the triple-A ratings will save the Commonwealth an estimated $60 million in interest costs, and allow the state to continue to make critical investments in infrastructure at a lower cost to taxpayers.
“It is welcome news today that these rating agencies have assigned the Accelerated Bridge Program bonds the highest possible credit rating,” said Governor Patrick. “This is further proof that our strategy for finding new efficiencies in state government and investing in our broken infrastructure at record levels is paying
off. We will continue to manage state finances in a fiscally responsible way, as we have throughout these challenging times, in order to maintain our rating and our ability to make these much-needed investments.”
It’s really a shame that the election is over. I’d love to see Charlie Baker twisting himself in knots trying to spin this as a negative.
Thanks to the Governor for saving the Commonwealth a lot of money, and for beginning the process of fixing our long-neglected infrastructure. Not only is this of benefit to our economy because these bridges are essential to the movement of people and goods, but it is also important for public safety, and for keeping our Commonwealth’s good construction jobs. Win-win all around!
You know what to do today. Go exercise your democratic rights. (Update - find out where you vote and see a ballot preview here!)
Having been so busy lately (teaching, business, etc) I haven’t had much time to post about this election. But suffice to say, I am an enthusiastic NO on all three ballot questions. If any of these pass, we will see a regression in our state, and you will not like the results.
Regarding question one (return of the alcohol exemption) and question three (rollback of the sales tax to 3%), the last thing we need to do in the middle of a time of reduced revenues due to economic woes nationwide is to reduce revenues further by gutting taxes. Yes, math still works the way you were taught in school.
Look, no one loves paying taxes. Everyone would love to have that that $1.25 back on your $20 purchase. However, is that worth seeing more teachers laid off, fewer police, and longer lines at the RMV? We’ve cut the fat, folks, long ago. In fact, Patrick has done a lot to reform the state government - including state transportation department consolidation, which Republican governors have been talking about for years and never accomplished. We’ve started cutting the bone during this recession. Further reducing revenues is suicidal. Forget all the progress we’ve made on jobs, green initiatives, and our kids’ education if we have to cut more essential programs.
With regards to the alcohol tax rollback: don’t listen to the alcohol lobby that you are being “double taxed” on alcohol. What a lot of freaking whining! The excise tax is on volume and is so minuscule, it’s hardly even noticeable - if the excise tax were repealed, prices would hardly change at all. Most other states have a sales tax that applies to alcohol, alongside an excise tax. What the longstanding tax exemption on alcohol was, was a gift and a giveaway. Alcohol is not an essential purchase, so why the hell was it exempt? It should be subject to the same tax that is on all other nonessential goods.
On the sales tax reduction - really, you’re going to save about $3 on a $100 purchase. And remember, sales tax is not applied to most essentials in MA - clothing (unless you buy expensive Gucci) or groceries, for a start. A huge chunk of our discretionary spending budget comes from the sales tax. Is that worth seeing hundreds of teachers laid off? Or unsafe streets? The sales tax cut would be worth a loss of $20 million dollars to Lowell alone, if the cut were applied in full to local aid and Chapter 70 monies from the state. How many city services and school programs do you think $20 million would cut? And since it looks impossible, politically, for Congress to pass another stimulus bill next year, we will be losing the ARRA funding, which has been floating much of our state deficit from reduced tax receipts - our state would be further devastated by the loss of over half the sales tax.
On question 2, the elimination of comprehensive permitting to build affordable housing, also has a regressive result. Of course, many people are frustrated with this law and how it is applied in our communities. However, the repeal of it will have a devastating effect on families who need affordable housing. I don’t have to tell you we have some damned expensive housing costs here in MA. It’s a side effect of our leading-the-nation prosperity. The more people in the middle class and up can afford, the more expensive housing is. The more dense the jobs and opportunity, the more the demand for housing. For those who are in jobs that do not have the same level of opportunity, or for those who are underemployed, disabled, or retired with no savings, the availability of affordable housing is paramount to their survival.
Affecting how difficult is it to build affordable housing in Massachusetts means keeping some families out of the prosperity. That’s not what our state is all about. Maybe the law needs reform (and maybe it doesn’t), but eliminating it is no way to do it. It will only hurt some of our most vulnerable citizens. We’re better than that.
So, I will vote no to all three of the ballot questions. I wish we didn’t have to keep having the same damn debate over revenues and taxes - it’s exhausting to constantly have to defend what is undesirable by any human being. Where’s our ballot question enacting positive initiatives?? But as Governor Patrick has always said, we have to decide what we want government to do, and then decide how to pay for it. Ignoring the reality (and basic math) of the situation to vote for something that feels good now but will hurt us in the long run is just stupid.
Tonight was the last Gov debate, a rather freeform event on TV and radio. (Honestly, though I prefer Charlie Gibson to Keller, I didn’t love the format much). It was a debate Charlie [Baker] needed to break out with, and failing to do that, he didn’t do well enough to turn his flagging campaign around. To be honest, I thought his tired rewiring of trickle-down memes was a bit of a broken record, even if you believe that nonsense.
Of course, the Big Dig memo was brought up (I missed the beginning unfortunately), and both Patrick and Cahill had some things to say about it. I don’t think Baker came up smelling like roses. But it’s this part of the Boston.com reaction to the debate that I really like (bold and commentary mine):
Baker wrote the memo after he had already engineered a financing plan that borrowed against future federal highway money [swaptions!] to pay for some of the project’s peak construction expenses. At the same time, Baker was helping to push some of the project’s spiraling expenses onto the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which would rely on future tolls to repay the loans.
Thank you. Someone else is finally putting these elements together coherently in the media. There is a big picture here that has been missing - that the subterfuge-full fiscal instruments of the Big Dig under the Weld/Cellucci/Baker executive branch(es) has repeatedly come back to haunt us since, all so that no one back then had to make the tough choices.
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