Transportation Talent

Fixing the traffic jams, making the MBTA work, encouraging cyclists and pedestrians – transportation is at the top of most legislative priority lists.

What are we going to do about it?  There is no magic bullet, but I think the central challenge is clear:  We need to grow hands-on talent and committed executive leadership in transportation agencies across the state and that means putting the money in place to retain them. Young people and career changers and transportation professionals considering Massachusetts as a place to live and work need to know that Massachusetts is committed to solving its transportation problems and recognizes that it will take sustained effort.   

I’ve listened to a lot of conversations about what it would take to move the fixes faster.  It just is not easy to spend money well. The challenges include avoiding disruption in service, the need for quality engineering and oversight, a tight labor market in both the public and private sector, and the public process – some projects are uncontroversial, but many have community consequences that need to be fully understood. All of these challenges can be addressed, but only if we can retain talent. As the challenges have grown over the past five years, the head count at MassDOT has actually drifted downwards by 13% (excluding the reductions due to automated tolling).

Retaining talent requires additional permanently dedicated revenues. It is true that Commonwealth has the borrowing capacity to fund more transportation projects. From a short run perspective, revenue is not the problem.  Over the past few years, the MBTA has roughly doubled its capital spending. If MBTA management believed that they could deliver another few hundred million in projects, the Commonwealth could fund those projects without maxing out its access to credit.  And, the Baker administration could and, I believe, would make those additional funds available without additional legislative authorizations.

But the possibility of borrowing does not give MassDOT the assurance of long-term organizational stability. Borrowed funds cannot be used to pay for permanent staff. We need to commit funds to support engineering and planning staff, so that we can build a deep organization committed to moving Massachusetts forward.

And if we are to attract those workers, they need to know that the funds will be in place to realize the vision that they help us shape. The transportation projects that are on the horizon loom large.   Really making our commuter rail system work to its full potential will take a couple of decades and could make the Big Dig look easy.  The challenges will only increase as the region grows and as sea level rise forces us to harden assets and perhaps to shift routes.   Technology changes may greatly expand the need for spending on computer software and hardware to support sophisticated mobility management.  

The Commonwealth has very high debt and pension liabilities.  The bond rating agencies seem comfortable with our debt management team and with the economic health of the Commonwealth, which is the foundation of our ability to pay debt service. The bond holders are not worried about getting paid.  But that does not mean we have a funding approach that will really work for Massachusetts over the long term. Another fundamental reason to commit additional revenues to transportation is so that we can fund our capital projects out of current revenues and slowly lower our relative debt burden.  We need to assure the next generation the financial capacity to respond to the even larger problems they are likely to face.  

There are a lot of ways to increase the funds dedicated for transportation, but broadly they fall in three groups – contractual dedication of existing revenues, new or increased charges on transportation users and new or increased general taxes.  I am personally open to all three and a mixed strategy is likely where we need to go. 

One thing is very much in my mind:  Transportation is essential, like food, shelter and health care.  We raise deep equity issues as we raise charges on transportation users – both drivers and transit riders.  Everyone should be able to afford to get to work.  And we also have to be very careful about the incentive structure we create.  I do meet people who are driving long distances to work because the commuter rail is so expensive.

We will not get the whole problem solved this fall, but I do hope we can make meaningful progress that builds momentum for more progress.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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40 Comments

  1. It sounds as though money to fund these sensible projects and qualified engineers is going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, the financial outlays are necessary and your idea of using multiple streams of income make a lot of sense. If beneficiaries could be communities of color as well as more affluent ones, perhaps the political wills can be mustered.

  2. Making sure there will be money for years of projects may help to persuade qualified people to move to Massachusetts, or to stay after college despite a high cost of living. But the supply side is also important: is anything being done to teach transport technology in local schools? People who are already living here may be more interested in staying — and will have grown up with the issues rather than parachuting in from somewhere else.

    1. I cannot speak for all the local schools, but certainly MIT is graduating a lot of top talent in transportation every year. Many of them go to run/improve/build transit systems in other cities around the world. I think some of them would be open to staying in Massachusetts if they felt the state was dedicated to improving the local transportation system. It is not just or even chiefly about salary: they have to see that they are joining an organization that is open to making improvements, where there is a good chance they will be able to use their talents to really change things for the better.

      1. Our neighbors all think their taxes are too high. Especially the seniors. They just feel are seniors and they need a break on taxes and should not be taxed as real millionaires. Its not my fault that my house is suddenly worth a million bucks.

  3. Just back from Paris where I was sharing a commute becoming more and more prevalent with folks on the train: about 20 miles train to Paris T, and then either subway or electric scooter.
    The scooter was a discovery to me. It is much lighter than a bike ~20 lbs, can go on bike lane and curbside. All teen ride it at two. Smart electronic anti theft. Its charge can sustain 20miles at 15mph. Rechargeable anywhere in 4 hr. I connected with a few professional using it regularly to commute. This is a game changer over bike. The issue become less the subway density itself than the suburb getting deep in the town for best individual “wearable” transport. Like connecting north and south station:)

  4. There a Magic Bullet for transportation. You have heard about it and that solution (solar micro-rail) should be evaluated because it solves congestion, pollution, resiliency, safety, sustainability — without needing government funding.

  5. This is all good, Will. But we can’t make the mistake we’ve made in the past and have lots of DOT staff supported by borrowing. That’s one reason, perhaps the major reason, that our debt is so high. If we have to raise taxes to pay for the high-quality staff we need, then that’s what we have to do.

    I would be open to reducing or even eliminating the charges for people to ride the T and buses. They’re not charged for local driving, after all.

    1. Thank you, Sue. I agree with you exactly: We need to put dedicated funding in place for engineering staff that is not bond funding.

      I also like cutting fees — it sends the right message and will create the right incentives and is important from an equity standpoint.

  6. Thanks for starting this discussion!

    I would support the principles outlined by Raise Up Mass in their recent letter:
    (1) Any near-term revenue proposals must include a commitment to move the Fair Share Amendment through the legislative process.
    (2) That any proposal be economically progressive, to bring the share of income paid by higher-income people more in line with that paid by lower-income people.
    (3) That a proposal be supported by the public and capable of surviving attempted repeal, so that we can count on the revenue to make necessary investments.
    (4) And that it be adequate, raising real money.

    While I personally am fine with a gas tax index, I think a gas tax increase alone is neither fair nor durable given how unpopular gas tax increases are. I think a gas tax could play a role in a larger reform though.

    Mass Budget outlined options earlier this year: http://massbudget.org/report_window.php?loc=14-Options-for-Raising-Progressive-Revenue.html.

    1. Thank you, Jonathan. I think the issue of principle is lightening the pressure on those who are feeling the squeeze most. Items 3 an4 are more like goals than principles — they may or may not be achievable — but I strongly support them.

  7. We have so many high end colleges in this area, with expensive tuition costs. Transit problems are a burden on their staff and students as well as the rest of us, and many of these schools pay little in taxes. In the same way that low cost tuition might be offered to graduating doctors promising to serve in poorly served areas, is it feasible at all to do the same for smart transit oriented students if they agree to work in Mass transit upon graduation (or even starting as student interns) for x# of years? Mike Dukakis of NU, a transit junkie himself, might have some ideas about such a concept. I heard him on WBUR this week saying just what you have said, that we don’t have enough good people in transit and he blames a lot of our current problems on just that, saying during his years of government the people were far better, and the problems far less severe.

    1. Governor Dukakis and his Transportation Secretary, Fred Salvucci, built an incredible staff. I remember when they were replaced by a Republican Administration the first thing the new Secretary of Transportation did was walk through the DOT building pointing at people and saying “all you Dukoids are now fired.” The idea was that planning, oversight, and evaluation would be better done by contracting out to private firms — the early version of today’s “public-private partnerships”. The Big Dig cost overruns and construction failures were the direct result. We need to remember that having people work for the public can be a good thing!

      1. Thank you Steve Miller. Dukakis scoffs at the state estimated price of a North Station/South Station connection, pointing out that for far less money the Red Line was extended all the way to Arlington from Harvard Square for far less money. As I recall, that Red Line extension moved ahead without major problems, and that is to the credit of Gov Dukakis “Dukoids”. I wish we had more “Dukoids” in government now!

  8. About an increase in the gas tax, perhaps it might go over better if it is triggered to increase when gas prices go down, so as to trim the pain of a gas tax increase? I heard today that Mass gas prices are forecast to fall soon due to lower oil prices and less people driving.

  9. Thank you, Will, for your thoughtful and wise approach to our
    severe transportation problems. I agree that there must be multiple
    means of raising funds. I would suggest that bonds be used for
    capital funds rather than salaries for professional employees. And
    we need to be cognizant of impact on lower income people.

  10. I am happy you are concentrating on building up people working at the T so they stay there a long time and really build institutional memory. I believe the governments works best with long-time government workers who are promoted from within and really know the ropes.

    That being said, I have never worked at the T, but I use it a lot, and I’ve lived here 10 years. I have observed many T workers in all positions are straight-up burned out (in the scientific sense of the word because I study occupational burnout in healthcare). I hear what they talk about and observe how they treat customers and colleagues, and they behave the same way burned out healthcare workers behave. Burnout tells me there are huge issues with managers not treating employees properly. Until you fix that, building up employees will not work.

  11. Given the increasingly larger vehicles that people are buying, the excessive amount of idling I’m witnessing (empty vehicles idling in convenience store parking lots “warming up” in driveways) and long distances that people are willing to commute by car, I think the gas tax should be raised significantly. People are not treating motor vehicle fuel like it’s a precious resource and the price of fuel does not cover its damage to the environment. Fuel has been too cheap for too long and caused too much environmental damage.
    I think that we’re trying a little to hard to accommodate long commutes (via both public and private transportation). Rather than trying to make commutes from NH, Providence, Worcester and Springfield to Boston faster and/or cheaper, I think we should be doing more to encourage business development midway between those cities and Boston. Nobody should be having to commute 30-50 miles each way to work every day. Even if you don’t consider a long train ride a waste of time, it’s still a waste of fuel.
    Now as far as attracting transportation talent, take a look at the MBTA Customer Technology blog: https://medium.com/mbta-tech
    I’ve been very impressed with the work that they’re doing to modernize some of the T operations. Maybe find out how they’re attracting talent and getting things done so efficiently and try to replicate that in other areas of MassDOT.

    1. For the reasons you support, I do support a gas tax increase.
      I also agree that there are some great people at the T now and at MassDOT as well. There just aren’t enough to sustain the progress we need to sustain. We need to keep making both of those organizations deeper.

    2. I couldn’t agree more with your comment about enabling longer commutes. I am not interested in supporting commuters who chose a bucolic suburban homestead and expect the government to support their long commutes into the city.

  12. I agree with Greg Menounos that people are buying bigger cars; I see wasteful idling a lot too. So I would be in favor of raising the gas tax. When gas prices went sky-high a few years ago, everyone started looking at hybrids and wanting to sell their SUVs. I believe that higher gas prices, coupled with a usable public transportation system, will be the only thing that stops people from driving.
    However, although there is a lot of talk about cost and funding, I never hear about real solutions. I believe that our approach to public transportation is too piecemeal and focuses too much on replacing older subway cars or changing bus routes. I would like to see a focus on how to MOVE PEOPLE AROUND more efficiently. This is the basic problem. But in order to do that, you have to look at the reality of all modes of transportation: i.e., most people don’t ride bikes in the winter when traffic is at its worst; people like convenience. Growth in the Boston area requires a fresh wholesale look at our needs.
    I also believe that any large-scale development should be required to contribute to a fund to help move around the people their development brings in (public/private cooperation). In this country, we are divided into the haves and the have-nots. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of the have-nots who have traditionally used public transportation; that’s why the Big Dig got funded and not the T—can you imagine if those billions had been used to rebuild our T? I think we need a Big Dig for the T.

  13. One problem of course is that top management positions in the public agencies are political and change with top state management political changes. That makes it difficult to keep both management and the policies stable.

  14. I think the time has come to put tolls on 93 and the southeast expressway- with tolless gantries like on the mass pike we can easily add revenue while encouraging the use of public transportation. Time to bite the bullet and get the funding started

    1. Putting tolls on more roads will not lead people to public transportation if there isn’t any. If buses or (better still) trains stopped in a lot more places around the state, and if those vehicles were comfortable, people would be more likely to leave their cars at home. (People can’t read or work while driving.) We need not just to improve our current transit system but to greatly expand it.

  15. I have been a dedicated MBTA rider for 48 years and am a robust supporter in every way. Today I am sad to see no suggestion of increased salaries for the MBTA Ride van drivers. Their base salary is $16.25 for backbreaking work with challenging clients in desperate traffic and dangerous locales. Adults who work in these positions cannot afford to live in metro Boston without a large communal group of wage earners in their nuclear family. Engineering and planning staff cannot move the MBTA forward responsibly without considering this noble group of employees.

      1. Information from an MBTA Ride van driver. Those drivers work for VTS (Veterans Transition Services, a subcontractor), driving the vans labeled MBTA The Ride. VTS collects from customers, insurance, hospitals and nursing homes. VTS is making millions of dollars while paying drivers a pittance of their worth. Many of the those transported have psychiatric illness which solo drivers must accommodate, usually in unsafe locales. On the internet there is a Ride add which states drivers are always needed. The MBTA should not be allowed to hide employee abuse occurring on its watch under a contract which it has approved, signed, and oversees going forward. Please look into this problem. Thank you.

  16. What about a construction tax? You build denser housing, you help improve the area’s transportation. In rural areas this means local roads, in suburbia the commuter rail, and in Allston/Brighton the Green Line/local buses. A one-time fee of 5-10% of the project cost (or sales), or $X,000 per new unit would go a long way, and would serve as a use tax on those who want to build and take advantage of the system we have. And what they’re building anyway is so unaffordable, who cares if they raise prices to cover the tax?

  17. Certainly a modern public transportation system is essential to a livable, vibrant, and economically flourishing city and regional area. Stable funding is a big part of making that happen. I support that.
    At the same time, I know senior citizens who have been “taxed out” of their homes, and have had to move to other cities, so I would like to see some consideration for specialized property tax relief given to long time senior residents beyond what is available for the very lowest income seniors.
    About bicycles and scooters: I have almost been mowed down twice on sidewalks by bicyclists. I know of a person who was hit by a bicyclist in the Public Garden and got a broken arm. I know it is not a popular thing to say but I do not think encouraging more bicyclists is a good idea. I called Boston City Hall to ask about what could be done about policing the outlandish behavior of so many cyclists and was told there are some laws for bicyclists, but there not enough resources to really police them. That is not a good situation. Until bicyclists can be controlled to not be a threat on our streets and sidewalks, they should not be encouraged. Pedestrians need consideration too!
    In addition to working on strategies for public transportation and bicycles/scooters, I would like to see electric charging stations made much more available on our streets for the vehicular traffic of the present and the future. We are all sharing the roadways and need to move the future of transportation ahead with a well coordinated effort.

  18. Thanks, Will, for this thoughtful overview. The MBTA talent pool question so often gets overwhelmed by frustrated transit users looking for scapegoats, but you make a strong case for its importance. I have a couple of other questions:
    1) On the debt/loan question, one often hears how the MBTA is struggling to get out from under Big Dig loans unfairly piled onto its balance sheet. Is there truth to this, and is there a remedy?
    2) Point taken that simply increasing costs to drivers or transit users will produce social inequities. That said, isn’t there an inherent flaw in not increasing fossil fuel (gasoline) taxes to reflect the huge externality of climate change? And where in your long-range vision is the transition to electric vehicles? (Many are now advocating for a 10-year timeline, but how?) Thanks again for facilitating this discussion.

  19. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion, Will. This is a challenging position for you to take and I appreciate your effort.

    I agree with you that hiring and retaining qualified top talents for DOT is the top priority and by all means I support it. (paying higher gas tax, paying higher fare, higher property tax as long as our money is put into good use).

    I also agree with you that there are passionate leaders, top talents engineers/ planners, dedicated staff and drivers in Mass DOT. But there are not enough of them to make DOT function.

    The real problem is that MBTA/DOT is actually rewarding people to do little and maintain the status quo, and making it harder for people to introduce innovations.

    Here are several examples:
    1, Every time I grabbed the hand rail of the commuter rail and pulled myself into the car at Belmont center. (its a good 4 to 5 feet climb) I feel that I am climbing up the half dome in Yosemite. I can’t imagine someone on a wheel-chair or a pregnant women to do the same everyday. There should be an easy fix with an elevated platform but it has not happened in so many years. It will make the loading/unloading process safer and quicker but it never happened.

    2, We are still relying on on-board conductors to punch a hole on your tickets on the commuter rail. It is labor intensive, error prone and the least efficient way given the advances in technology. I don’t understand why we are still sticking to this.

    3, MBTA red-line collision in Quincy revealed an antiqued communication and signal relay system that nobody was able to fix months after the incidents. I think someone is not doing his job to ensure an updated and reliable control system for the red-line. I also cannot understand why MBTA needed 48 employees to manually control the red line traffic at 5-cars per hour frequency.

    These are superficial examples, but it reveals something problematic in DOT culture. That is “do nothing and take no risk” mentality. And to some extend, it reveals the Cadillac style bureaucracy. It took MBTA 10 years to put new red line/orange line cars into use .The same design has been in-use and proven to work for many years in China, therefore I think it should not take so long.

    IMHO, most of the other problems are also a reflection of this culture. We inherited the topology of “hub and spoke” transportation infrastructure that nobody want to change it, we continued to use the diesel powered commuter rail which is truly outdated and not fit for today’s society. As the system is severely overloaded, there are almost no major rail, subway, road, bridge or tunnel planned in Metro Boston areas.
    I feel deeply disappointed that in the past 15 years there are no major improvements in the transportation network.
    In addition to your proposal to hire and retain top talents, I think we also need to get rid of the employees that did not perform and promote a change the corporate culture. Compensation and benefits should be based on the key performance index of making improvements not on how many years you worked in Mass DOT.

    We are frustrated commuters but we are not looking for scapegoats. It is obvious that Mass DOT/MBTA failed in the past 15 years and it is time for a change.

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