Privatization and the MBTA

The exciting frontier of transportation planning is in information technology: car sharing, ride sharing, on-demand shuttles.  We can’t expect public transportation agencies to lead in creating these evolving business models.  The public role will be to run  high-volume bus and rail trunk routes and to find ways to assure that persons with limited income can find “last mile” solutions — connections from their origin to the trunk lines and from the trunk lines to their final destination.

Private railroad companies ran urban trolleys and subways in the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.  Park Street  — our first subway  — was originally built for the West End Street Railway.  When private automobiles became common in the 30s and 40s, all the urban private railway companies collapsed and were taken over and subsidized by new public entities.  In the Boston area, the Metropolitan Transit Authority was created in 1947 to take over the Boston Elevated Railway.

In a legal sense, what happened in the 30s and 40s was a movement from private to public, but really it was the opposite. The private street railway companies were a shared mode of transportation that required public cooperation to build and operate.  They existed only at the sufferance of public entities — Park Street was built by the Boston Transit Commission, a legislatively created entity.  The railways were legally private and able to make a profit, but heavily regulated.  The automobile allowed a movement to truly private transportation — each person owning their own vehicle and coming and going entirely on their own schedule (of course, on publicly built roads).

The real challenge of 21st century transportation is to find ways to combine the overwhelming convenience of private vehicles with the efficiency of shared transportation.  The mass production model of shared transportation — subways, trolleys and buses — is financially viable and environmentally desirable only in very dense areas, where there is enough demand to keep them full.  There is nothing efficient or green about a 40-foot bus with 3 people on it.

Because we favored highway construction through much of the last century, our homes and businesses are now sprawled across the region and, for most trips in the region, mass-produced shared transportation simply does not work.  To entice people out of their automobiles, we need to create financially-viable shared transportation modes by using technology to connect people with resources when they need them.  Bridj, Uber, Zip Car, Lyft, Via are some of the newest models.   Private Transit Demand Management Associations are a more seasoned alternative to public transit.

The new models will keep coming over the next few decades.  Some of them will work.  Some will fail like the ride-sharing company, GoLoco.  We need to experiment.  The public sector is risk-averse and process-intensive.  It simply cannot do the multiple experiments needed to develop nimble new models of transportation.  Most of the exciting ideas are emerging in the private sector.

The new models will never replace services like the Red Line or the Dudley Bus — trunk lines that cost-effectively serve thousands of riders every day along heavily-travelled routes.  But they will sometimes do a better job at meeting niche needs  — very late nights and less heavily-travelled routes.

When transportation innovators offer to meet niche needs, the MBTA needs to be able to say yes.   Saying yes means allowing access to bus stops and interior bus stations, sharing data to support improved connections and finding ways to subsidize the new models for people of limited means.  In some instances, saying yes will mean abandoning low-efficiency routes to private new-model providers.

People of means are the first to adopt the new models because the new models are more expensive than subsidized public transportation and that’s what we see today — lots of affluent people using Uber.  If the new models are to be available to everyone, the MBTA needs to be able to partner with them and make subsidy arrangements for people with lower income.

To allow the MBTA to say yes and form those partnerships easily, the MBTA needs to be at least partially freed from the restraints of the Pacheco law, which was passed in response to the privatization scandals of the last century and requires exhaustive process and pre-approval from the state auditor for any transaction which might move jobs from the public sector to the private sector.


Note: In the final version of the FY2016 budget, the legislature gave the MBTA the ability to experiment with privatization without pre-approval as required by the Pacheco law for the next three years, subject only to review after the fact.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

13 replies on “Privatization and the MBTA”

  1. Will, I do not know anything about the Pacheco law nor do I plan to learn more. I do, however, fully support any efforts to improve our public transit system. I have zero interest in preserving the status quo or protecting T unions. While the T employees are probably really nice people, every single one of them I ever encounter on the job is grumpy, unhelpful, disinterest and seemingly unhappy with their work. I want to help them find happiness with work for which they may be better suited.

    Do you ever ride the T? Are your experiences with the Carmen any different than mine?

    1. Thanks, A.

      From me, nothing at all personal against the carmen and bus drivers.

      I ride the T often and chat the drivers up when I can. The Carmen’s Union leader is very thoughtful and personable.

      For me, this is about how to structure transportation in the 21st century, Nothing personal.

  2. Clear headed, insightful, past, present, future.

    Great analysis. Helped me to put things in context, understand better what is going on and see how we are moving forward in some ways on this challenging issue.

    Will the Pacheco restraints be looked at, I wonder.

  3. Privatizing suburban service (which is the most unprofitable and least populated MBTA service) will reduce political support for the MBTA among wealthy, influential voters.

  4. Thanks for the thinking on this. I think that the TMA idea that we’re working to create in Watertown and the many private shuttles and tma’s already in operation would be much improved if able to use Charlie Cards and/or some sort of transfer mechanism to allow one payment at beginning of the commute and faster transitions along the way. I think that this is part of what you’re suggesting as far as the partnerships go and we’re all for it. Thanks for keeping your eyes on thaT prize. …not to mention, a better balance of more service to areas that can use it, etc…

  5. Interesting thoughts on a complex subject. I seem to remember reading some where that the T had on several occasions asked for exceptions to the Pacheco Law, and that almost all of them had been granted. If this info wasn’t wrong, then maybe it’s not such an obstacle. The problem would be in how to draft the exceptions which would be allowed. Maybe we need to wait and see (1) how the rest of the governor’s proposals improve T management and service and (2) what specific proposals for public/private partnerships may arise that would require exceptions. Are there any on the table now?

  6. I fail to see the relevance of companies like Uber. Did it increase transportation capacacity or did it simply compete with other kinds of taxi services, the ones that tend to use the PSTN rather than digital packet switch networks and hand-held computers to arrange the pick ups? Seems to me people are being dazzled by hype, novelty, and technical bluster on this.

    If these services did increase the number of taxis available (though obvisiouly not he lane capacity), say by drawing out new drivers via simpler less stringent licensing requirements, would it still happen when the economy is stronger, which would be when traffic would increase the most. Since when are there so many non-cabbies waiting to be cabbies and how reliable long term is that trend (particularly as drivers discover Uber’s terms)?

    (In case you think I’m a disgruntled cabbie, no, I’m a computer programmer, one who’s worked in a start up, which has made me skeptical of the news reporting regarding technical start ups.)

  7. Maybe some services should be more available. I mean for example, the 66 to Allston. There’s
    No reason why around 11am-4pm the bus is always packed. When the bus is packed, I have to wait another 10 minutes for another one and that’s pack too. I will have to take an uber to Harvard st just to take the 57 to go to watertown because I don’t want to be late for work. I know you can’t control how many people could get on the bus but it would be good if MBTA work on that. Budget could be an option but you could limit the amount of buses for other routes that doesn’t get a lot of people on the bus. If it makes sense.

    1. Agreed. That’s what this is really about. If we could let go of some of the less busy routes and leave them to ride-sharing providers, then we could take the resources and put them on busy routes like the 66.

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